Elle Fanning and Ben Foster in "Galveston"

SXSW ’18 Review: Melanie Laurent’s “Galveston” Is So Good It Should Be Criminal

Of many arresting individual frames in “Galveston,” the one that may stick out the most is the image of Roy (Ben Foster) smoking inside his room at Emerald Shoals Motel, a dive in the beachside Texas town, looking upon Raquel (Elle Fanning), the 19-year-old he’s taken in right outside his window, taking a drag off of her cigarette, with the orange embers at the tip of the Marlboro piercing the blue of night. He sees a little bit of himself in her and the camera pulls back just enough to make the parallel, which you would never hear Roy speak aloud himself as a taciturn outlaw who’d like a better future for Raquel than the present he’s living in, on the lam after his boss (Beau Bridges) sends him on a job to rough up a rival that ends up being an attempt to kill him. In his rush to escape, Roy can’t help but stop for the bruised, bloodied and bound young woman he sees as he’s ready to leave, and he still can’t articulate why he continues to let her stick with him well after they’re out of immediate danger, even unexpectedly fetching her three-year-old sister along the way, yet he doesn’t need to for the audience, thanks to this single shot, even if he’s chasing after it in his own mind.

You don’t get moments that say so much while relying so little unless everything is working in tandem on a film and to say Melanie Laurent and Nic Pizzolatto is a match made in heaven, even if the film they’ve made is set in hell, would be an understatement. As the ocean-wide gap between seasons one and two of “True Detective” demonstrated, the former told with the help of just a single director in Cary Fukunaga, Pizzolatto’s elusive mysteries, where the dialogue itself can be as tantalizingly enigmatic as the getting to the bottom of the crime that drives the narrative, benefit from a strong, assured hand behind the camera and Laurent, whose confidence has grown with successive film, often bursting with bold colors and intuitive camerawork, somehow extending the expressiveness that makes her such an extraordinary actress to the lens to become a part of the characters as much as the actors, is ideal.

The result is arguably the finest work of art either has had their name attached to, though first and foremost, it’s an enthralling thriller which reminds of “Hell or High Water,” not just in featuring Foster and a Bridges brother, but in reimagining its twists and turns for audiences who have seen it all yet deeply satisfying in all the ways typically associated with the genre. In a way it’s a reversal of Laurent’s 2014 drama “Breathe,” which was engineered as a suspenseful nailbiter charting the relationship between a pair of teenage girls, eerily reflecting the emotional violence they inflict on one another with its directorial flair – with physical violence to contend with, Laurent takes audiences into Roy and Raquel’s dangerous headspace where the two are driven by motives that may be clear, but actions they become increasingly detached from, for better or worse, and her mastery over immersive sound design, moody lighting and knowing exactly when the camera should move and how contribute to a pace that’s truly beguiling as it allows the characters the multidimensional space to think, enriched with all the small character details Pizzalatto is able to build into his prose, amidst the jolts of adrenaline that break up a quiet life on the lam.

Foster and Fanning both appear invigorated by roles worthy of them, particularly the latter who could’ve found herself constrained in playing a prostitute, but ironically Laurent frees up Fanning to play her most adult role to date, drawing on her preternatural poise and childlike sense of mischief to create a memorable femme fatale with a rich inner life that will occasionally escape into the outside world in songs she’ll hum to herself or privately whimpers in the bath while putting on a brave face for Roy. Fanning’s always been a natural wonder, but in getting the room to become her own person rather than exist for someone else, she delivers the kind of riveting performance that one hopes unshackles her from the roles as ingenues without agency for good. Meanwhile, Foster slips into the ragged skin of Roy like a comfortably well-worn leather glove, quietly wily with kerosene running through his veins, convincingly careful not to draw the attention of authorities, but evidently wild enough for a motel manager to inform him at check-in, “I’m here all the time and I have cops for friends.” You won’t want to take your eyes off him, either for entirely different reasons, and when a film as great as “Galveston” comes around, you’ll want to be here for it too.

“Galveston” will play at SXSW on March 13 at 5:30 pm at the Alamo Lamar E, March 16 at 8:30 pm at the Zach and March 17 at 5:45 pm at the AFS Cinema.

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