A pensive but plodding story of criminals on the run, Mélanie Laurent’s Galveston is a moody, slow-burn drama that never quite catches fire. The film pairs Roy (Ben Foster), a career criminal with terminal cancer, and Raquel (Elle Fanning), a teenage runaway who’s turned to prostitution to get by. The two meet when they narrowly escape a bloody heist gone wrong, which Roy believes was a set-up arranged by his boss, Stan Pitko (Beau Bridges). Roy takes Raquel under his wing, and the pair make their way to a cheap motel in the titular Texas island city, but not before a stop off at a shack in the woods where Raquel picks up a young girl (Lili Reinhart) she claims is her sister.
Roy and Raquel spend much of the film simply waiting—for what, it’s not clear—and Laurent matches her characters’ brooding desperation with gloomy, chiaroscuro-rich compositions and extended stretches of dialogue-free rumination. By downplaying the film’s inherent violence and genre thrills, Laurent is attempting here to demythologize the Bonnie and Clyde-esque screenplay by Jim Hammett. In theory, the idea of a French female director taking on the mythos of such profoundly masculine and American material sounds tantalizing. And there are moments—particularly in the film’s depiction of Roy’s impotence, unglamorous alcoholism, and deluded attempt to reconnect with an old girlfriend (played by Adepero Oduye)—where Laurent effectively chips away at the hard-edged machismo endemic to the genre.
In practice, however, Laurent’s film is a slog—a slow, directionless anti-thriller that never manages to build tension or establish any stakes. It doesn’t help that Foster and Fanning deliver much of their dialogue in a mumbly monotone that starkly underplays the desperation and despair at the heart of their characters. And for all her attempts to deromanticize this material, Laurent can’t help but fall back on the familiar trappings of films about gun-toting rebels on the lam. To wit, Galveston‘s milieu is made up not of the largely interchangeable detritus that dots the contemporary American landscape—say, Best Westerns, Burger Kings, and sports bars that blast Journey—but rather of nostalgically picturesque signifiers of life on the run: retro motels, mom-and-pop diners, and honky-tonk roadhouses.
Only in the film’s final stretch does Laurent truly subvert our expectations. As Roy and the ruthless Stan are heading for a confrontation, the filmmaker stages a complex single-shot sequence that signals we’re about to get some badass John Wick-style vengeance porn. But instead, Galveston takes an abrupt shift into dreamy determinism, ending on a note of unexpected romantic longing. It’s a starkly effective bait-and-switch, one that deftly denies us the bloody catharsis we think we crave, but it’s too little, too late. Indeed, just as the film starts to get really interesting, it’s over in a flash.