Actress and director Mélanie Laurent makes her English-language feature debut with “Galveston,” based on a novel by Nic Pizzolatto, who created the uneven cable series “True Detective.” Though—as befits the titular city—it begins and ends during what appears to be a hurricane, it delivers too little elemental punch in between, despite impressive lead performances by Ben Foster and Elle Fanning.
Foster is Roy Cady, a hit-man for New Orleans-based Stan (Beau Bridges), who runs his business using what looks like an industrial laundry as his base of operations. Roy has just learned that he has lung cancer, but that diagnosis just makes him angry, and despite a persistent cough he’s ready for another assignment. Unfortunately, Stan sends him into a trap, and he barely escapes. In the process he rescues Raquel Arceneaux (Fanning), a young prostitute who begs him to take her with him as he leaves Louisiana posthaste, taking time only to retrieve some ledgers that he can use as leverage against Stan.
The two tear off westward by car, stopping at Raquel’s homestead, where she apparently shoots her stepfather and retrieves her young sister Tiffany (played by siblings Anniston and Tinsley Price). Eventually they reach the titular city, where they take up residence in a grubby motel despite the suspicions of the manager (C.K. McFarland).
Their time there is marked by some troubling episodes. Roy attempts to reconcile with an erstwhile girlfriend (Adepero Oduye), and Raquel takes up her old job again, much to his chagrin. A sleazy fellow at the motel (Robert Aramayo) tries to seduce—and then threaten—Roy into partnering with him in a heist, an effort that ends very badly. Mostly, however, the film is devoted to watching as Roy, Raquel and Tiffany develop a bond of sorts, though the troubled backgrounds and damaged psyches of the adults prove insuperable obstacles. There’s a meandering, lackadaisical feel to this part of the film in particular, something attributable both to Laurent and her editors, Joseph Krings and Lance Edmands.
Danger enters the subdued proceedings when Roy attempts to use the information he’s purloined to shake down Stan, a plan that proves a bad mistake. The upshot is another dangerous spot Roy has to extricate himself from; but a postscript in which he talks about the outcome with a woman (Lili Reinhart) many years later—apparently he survived his malady—explains things, at least to some extent.
“Galveston”—which, incidentally, wasn’t shot there, or Louisiana either, but in Georgia, though cinematographer Arnaud Potier does his best to disguise the fact with his gritty images—creates a mood all right, but it’s one of emotional emptiness periodically shattered by cruel violence, and while both Foster and Fanning offer intense performances, their characters are never fully fleshed out. By contrast Bridges, in a mercifully brief turn, hams it up mercilessly.
Laurent has thus fashioned a sort of modern film noir peopled by flawed figures with bleak prospects, one that offers a pervasively downbeat ambience but not much dramatic insight.