Movie Review: Elle goes trashy and on the road to “Galveston”

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We hold these critical truths to be self-evident, and we hold them close to the heart.

  • That every Ben Foster performance has value, and by extension, every film he makes is worth chewing over.
  • That Elle Fanning has few peers when it comes to generating empathy in a role, and if she sees something in tarting down to play a 19 year-old Louisiana (by way of Orange, Texas) hooker, she gets the benefit of the doubt.
  • And that no on-the-lam road picture can be all bad.

So the bleak, violent and somewhat downbeat “Galveston” has that going for it, out of the gate. Directed by French actress-director Mélanie Laurent (“Inglourious Basterds,” “Beginners,” “Night Train to Lisbon”), it’s an aimless road thriller/crime melodrama that delivers a few body blows, but pulls more punches than it lands.

Foster plays Roy, a collector/enforcer for a local “importer” (Beau Bridges) in 1988 New Orleans. Roy keeps the job even though his woman (María Valverde) ditched him for the boss. He keeps secret what the doctor told him about his lungs as he stomped out of having his X-rays explained to him.

And he keeps his doubts to himself when he’s sent on a job by that boss, with the proviso “Nobody should get hurt bad…No guns.”

Before you can say “Set up,” Roy and his sidekick, –the muscle — are jumped. Blood is spilled, a lot of it.

And there was this woman — teenage girl dressed as a woman, anyway. Rocky (Fanning) is tied up in a chair in the house Roy’s broken into. Freeing her complicates his getaway. But Roy, a stone-cold-killer, has a soft spot. How’d she GET here?

“I knew this girl in Orange, Texas,” Rocky begins, dissolving into tears. “Perfect Choice Escorts — I didn’t know.”

He won’t leave her. She won’t give him any peace.

“You’re the one that kidnapped me.

“I saved you. Be clear on that.”

As they motor West, she’s a little too friendly with the barflies at the honky tonks they hit along the way. She comes on to him, maybe as a way of getting back to “normal” after the shock of witnessing the New Orleans bloodbath, maybe because screenwriters are lazy, hasty and lascivious about such matters.

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“You’re 40. I’m 19. Man, that’s nothing, right?”

He turns her down with extreme prejudice — “You’re disgusting.

But a coughing fit keeps him from ditching her, and when she begs him to make a stop in Orange, Texas, he does. That’s where he hears a shot in a house she’s dashed into, a shot followed by Rocky dragging a three year-old girl out with her.

“She’s never been to the ocean,” Rocky says of Tiffany. And that’s how they wind up in “Galveston.”

Laurent serves up a heaping helping of “local color,” from the dumpy motel run by the no-nonsense Nance (CK McFarland), to the dives around it and the down-and-outs who stay there. Rocky’s sordid trade fits right in there. Violence, despair and poverty hang over this crowd.

That includes the obligatory nosy young guy (Robert Armayo), a kid who with “a job” and a sense of himself as “a professional,” and a proposition for Roy.

“Where’d you do your time, bra?”

Foster, vivid in a role where he barely said a word (“Leave No Trace”) is at his best in the (brief, rare) fight scenes, and in biting off tough guy dialogue and drawling it at the camera.

“Reckon you’re gonna have to hope my words’ a lil’better’n yours.”

But Laurent loses track of her villain (Bridges) and robs the film of its urgency as she does. The story’s turn toward the grim, the fatalistic and the noble is undercut by an epilogue that serves no dramatic function.

The actors are game, the action beats are handled with skill. But the story lacked shape. Laurent had the cachet to land a great cast, but not the skill to bend a tired, unsurprising journey and the script that relates it into something more interesting.

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MPAA Rating: unrated

Cast: Elle Fanning, Ben Foster, Beau Bridges

Credits: Directed by Melanie Laurent, script by Nic Pizzolatto, based on his novel.  An RLJE release.

Running time:  1:31

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