The terminally ill criminal is such a cliché in movies and books that the sight of Ben Foster’s boozing bagman learning he’s got lung cancer in the opening minutes of Galveston is, strangely enough, kind of promising. Surely, one thinks, this will be a clever twist on an old concept. Surely they’re not going to play this straight?
Well, I have some terrible news for you. Based on a Nic Pizzolatto novel and directed by Melanie Laurent, the pitch-black and paper-thin Galveston not only fails to find a way to reinvent, or at least refresh, that old tired idea, it also piles a few more tired ideas on top of it. Sent on a job that turns out to be an ambush (his boss, who’s dating his ex-girlfriend, wants him gone, see?), hardened New Orleans hood Roy Cady (Foster) blows away some faceless henchmen and then finds himself saddled with a teenage prostitute, Raquel (Elle Fanning), who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. He’s fleeing to Texas, and she insists on riding out with him. Then she forces him to detour into a run-down hamlet along the way and up to a quiet little house. There, one gunshot later, she runs out of the house with a 3-year-old girl in her arms. The girl, we’re told, is her young sister, whom Raquel has just violently liberated from their abusive dad. The trio speed off.
There are some late, minor twists in Galveston that suggest the movie has more on its mind than it lets on — but they ultimately don’t amount to much. As a crime drama, the film is so stripped down to its basics that one wonders if at some point it was meant to be one of those stoic, elemental tales that aspire to the mythic. (I haven’t read the novel, but it’s possible that it distinguishes itself not with narrative but with prose.) Certainly, Foster, whose sheer presence often serves as its own form of character development, would be the right match for an archetypal part like that: His intensity tells its own story without needing reams of dialogue or flashbacks or narrative tangents. See Debra Granik’s infinitely superior Leave No Trace, released earlier this year, for proof.
And it’s not like the story is entirely unaware of the degree to which Roy seems like the platonic ideal of a hardened crook. When he and the girls check into a motel, one young dope (Robert Aramayo) looking for a big score immediately pegs him as a guy who might be able to help. Meanwhile, the motel proprietor sees in him someone to be wary of: a gruff, tough, tattooed guy shacking up with two young girls. The film wants to show us how Roy works against what is expected of him — how there is good within him, fighting against the hard, angry exterior. That’s not exactly a fresh idea either, and the film compounds the problem by failing to do anything interesting with it. In the end Roy is just another goon who discovers he has a soft side. And who dramatically coughs blood at cinematically opportune moments.
Still, incidental pleasures remain. Director Laurent, a very good actress (Inglourious Basterds, By the Sea) who has in recent years also proven herself to be a real talent behind the camera (her 2015 film Breathe is well worth seeking out), certainly has an eye, and demonstrates an occasional deftness with action and suspense. She stages one particularly elaborate and violent confrontation late in the film as a single, unbroken shot that makes excellent use of both offscreen space and Foster’s physicality. And it’s impossible for actors like these not to show some moments of beauty: The part of Raquel isn’t layered or complex, but Fanning does get one genuinely touching monologue that bursts with such raw emotion it reminds us, albeit briefly, that she’s one of the most talented performers of her generation. But ultimately, the film fails to bring either her character or Foster’s to life, and as things get darker and more sensational, we may even start to resent Galveston for trying to coax a response out of us with crueler and crueler developments for these people. Are clichés more sympathetic when they’re made to suffer?