Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Mélanie Laurent probably isn’t the first name anyone would think of to helm a pulpy, cigarette-burnt, Southern-fried, brutality-drenched feature like GALVESTON. But here we are. The astute, assured filmmaker turns in an edgy, radically different product from her contemplative character studies, THE ADOPTED, BREATHE and PLONGER. Though her first English language directorial effort isn’t as sparkling as her previous French language features, her capabilities are certainly on full display.
Based on Nic Pizzolatto’s first novel, the story is fairly straightforward – or at least Laurent and adapting screenwriter Jim Hammett make it seem that way. There’s much less self-indulgent meandering than in Pizzolatto’s TRUE DETECTIVE series, thanks in part to Laurent’s keen ability to capture atmosphere economically. Hitman Roy Cady (Ben Foster) works for powerful boss Stan (Beau Bridges), who runs a criminal operation out of the back of a dry cleaning factory in a decaying Texan town. “Gettin’ clean” is the picture’s prevalent motif, echoed in both the settings and themes. But no sins can ever truly be washed away. You just learn to live with the consequences.
Roy’s looking to get out of the underground organization one way or another, either by choice or by death. The latter is looking more and more like his best escape route since his recent trip to the doctor for violently coughing up blood turned up a bad prognosis, and he’s now in deep denial. An opportunity to get away clean arises when Stan sends him out on one last job (yes, you can feel those words hanging ominously in the air). However, wouldn’t you know it, Roy is set up and forced to go on the run with an unexpected guest caught in the fray: young prostitute with a heart of gold, Rocky (Elle Fanning). She too has wrongs to right involving people she loves, like her young “sister” Tiffany (played in youth by Anniston and Tinsley Price and adulthood by Lili Reinhart). As the two attempt to make peace with the turmoil in their past, the past inevitably catches up with them.
If it sounds like you’ve seen this kind of cinematic tour of redemption before, you have. A zillion times. That said, Laurent and company make it stand out from the crowd as best they can. Foster and Fanning both deliver high-caliber work, embodying their characters’ broken hurt, self-abnegation and weariness like a second skin. The audience roots for these fringe-dwellers to find the soul-cleansing they so dearly deserve thanks to the vitality of the pair. But it’s the supporting performances from Reinhart, whose gut-wrenching turn sneaks in late in the film, and Adepero Oduye, who plays Roy’s ex-flame with commanding conviction and raw honesty, that outshine the two leads.
Laurent and frequent collaborator Arnaud Potier establish a visual poetry with the imagery on display. Potier’s saturated cinematography is beguiling, adding a fascinating sheen to the gritty, grimy narrative. Red and green neon envelop the characters and entrance the eye. Roy’s escape after being kidnapped by Stan’s thugs, shot in one long take, is fluid and keeps the character’s inner-drive at the forefront of the action. The way the pair photograph brutality makes the audience reflect on the ramifications of these animalistic actions rather than glorifying them.
Nevertheless, there’s a heap load of cliché the filmmakers are unable to skirt given the source material. The “a storm’s a comin’” story thread that bookends the film might make eyeballs roll. Rocky’s character arc (a full circle one that infuriatingly begins and ends with rape) smacks of misogyny. Sure, it’s a blessing that the female director softens and subverts the trope by not dwelling gratuitously on it. But Laurent’s not a miracle worker, and the execution isn’t as clean as one would hope.
Ironically, Laurent’s feature is a wash.
GALVESTON is now playing.