Galveston: But Don’t Give Yourself Away, by Scott Nye
On the most recent episode of our flagship show here, David discussed Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Watchmen as being failed from the jump, but a completely successful rendition of that failed premise. At a much smaller scale, Mélanie Laurent’s Galveston suffers the same fate. She is a supremely talented filmmaker (her second feature, Breathe, was in my top five the year it came out) working with two of the best working actors (Ben Foster and Elle Fanning) to adapt a novel by…well, say what you will about him, True Detective writer Nic Pizzolatto certainly has style.
Galveston has style, too, but not enough to distinguish its too-familiar, broody-macho leanings – a low-level goon (Foster) retrieves a prostitute (Fanning) from captivity, and they hole up in a motel together until the whole mess blows over, until inevitably the mess comes to find them. He’s got baggage, she’s got baggage, they’ve both lead pretty hellish lives. But too often the (young, pretty, sexually-available) girl is there purely to draw out the (older, beaten, stoically-chaste) man, and Galveston just keeps hammering away at that point.
The script – credited to Jim Hammett, a writer so first-time I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be a pen name – is structurally mundane and contains little of the poetic language Pizzolatto has made his name on. The film is intent on drawing out a sense of romance or nostalgia in a premise that warrants neither, that is simply to grimy to be anything but unpleasant. Fanning builds out her character quite well, suggesting a young woman who’s ready to crumble if just one more thing goes wrong but can’t stop selling the idea of carefree youth when she’s lived anything but. Foster, who gave one of the year’s best performances in Leave No Trace, here returns to striving for pathos as he has so often. He’s best when he’s quiet, reserved, and a little afraid of himself and this strange girl. The script keeps shoving him into rescue situations where he finds reign to flex his crazy face, a transformation he can’t quite bridge and which only underscores the film’s genuine discomfort with its own machismo.
Is violence redemptive or destructive? Can men of violence be redeemed by channelling that rage toward a greater evil? These are questions male writers seem eternally obsessed with, and it’d be nice to say a female director gives them an added dimension, but Laurent approaches the material fairly straightforwardly. She retains an exceptionally strong eye, the camera rarely feeling out of place. It sketches the motel as a sort of purgatory before the hell into which they must inevitably plunge, the skies punishingly monochrome and the rooms cast in otherworldly greens and shadows. It’s plenty refreshing just to see a fairly small story executed so cleanly, with only the minimum number of setups required and plenty of dialogue packed into every shot.
But Laurent never quite finds a perspective on the material, it never feels personal the way Breathe so evocatively captured the paranoia of high school friendship. Whatever the characters’ fears and apprehensions, they aren’t shared by their filmmaker, and the characters aren’t so fascinating that they can overcome this lack of involvement. The story’s essential masculinity, this notion that violence is justified and cleansing and whatever else, is never quite brought to bear; it’s too romanticized, too “mythic”, too in awe of its awesomeness. When she starts stealing moves directly from True Detective – a single-take action scene bears more than just that descriptive resemblance to a similar shot in that show – I couldn’t help but feel she’d surrendered to her audience rather than holding us hostage.