Sometimes a person ends up where they do in life because of bad decisions. The younger they start making them, the worse they end up. They aren’t bad people deep down, but they’ve chosen bad company, and suffer the consequences as a results.
In director Melanie Laurent’s Galveston, Ben Foster plays just this type of person in Roy, a career criminal who continues to make poor choices even at the age of 40. Roy’s a compulsive smoker who has just received a lung disease diagnosis, but still pulls out another cigarette in the hospital parking lot. At this stage, Roy’s poor choices extend to his female companions, as his girlfriend has caught the eye of his boss Stan (Beau Bridges), who wants to eliminate the romantic competition.
One night, Roy finds himself in the middle of a double cross, and narrowly avoids summary execution at the hands of some fellow thugs. In a superbly crafted sequence where most of the violence remains just slightly off-screen, he turns the tables on his attackers, and in the process, liberates an imprisoned prostitute, Rocky (Elle Fanning). Roy’s a smart guy and it takes no time to figure out what has happened and what they need to do – which is run for their lives.
Roy and Rocky stop by her house to get a few things. For Rocky, that includes her baby sister. Roy doesn’t have a chance to protest as more gunshots are fired, and the trio tear out of the driveway of Rocky’s dilapidated childhood home.
Galveston doesn’t become the expected stereotypical ‘criminals on the lam’ road movie here though. Roy books the three of them into a small motel and we immediately sense there resides a warmer heart inside Roy than we are lead to expect. He books the girls into a separate room, and ably deflects the accusing glance of the motel’s proprietor.
The insistent action of the film’s opening scenes give way to a more plaintive mood. Roy gets to know the girls, and develops a fondness for Rocky that she reciprocates. He turns down criminal work to care for his wards, until he discovers that Rocky wasn’t quite honest about the gunshots he heard at her house (not that we suspected she was). These facts, combined with his worsening condition, leads Roy to be a bit too fatalistic about his own prognosis and he spirals into a brief period of self-destruction.
The steps Roy takes coming out of this bender are what set Galveston apart and make it unique. Foster imbues Roy with a renewed sense of purpose, and an understanding that now someone is depending on him, and he must protect them at all costs. Roy makes a couple more bad decisions in the process, and even though they are for the right reasons, they potentially doom him to a life of remorse. Foster handles these scenes deftly, and Laurent takes the film – and Roy – down a road we otherwise wouldn’t have thought possible.
Foster has made a niche for himself with these roles. In films like Leave No Trace and Hell or High Water, he takes the edge off at the right time, so we see the humanity behind the characters he chooses. These are roles of great complexity and sometimes very little dialogue. What Foster conveys through expression and mannerism, for instance in the early scene where he grapples with the choice of lighting one more cigarette, is more than many actors are able to do in an entire film.
While Foster is again superb here, Fanning leaves a lot to be desired. Between this piece and I Think We’re Alone Now, Fanning shows herself to be a one note actress, and that one note is pretty grating. In Rocky’s most emotional scene, her performance comes across as just that: an act, not a convincing delivery of her character’s deepest secrets.
Despite this, Galveston works precisely because of the juxtaposition of the gritty opening scenes and the delicate balance of Roy and Rocky’s developing relationship. The ending hits all that much harder as a result, and we understand when Roy makes one last bad decision.