Four years ago, the hype surrounding True Detective’s first season climaxed when HBO Go’s servers crashed during the airing of the season finale. Nic Pizzolatto seemed destined to become the master of pulpy noir as True Detective captured the zeitgeist like few shows have in the streaming era. Hollywood quickly set its sights on another Pizzolatto project, a film adaptation of his his 2010 debut novel, Galveston.
As the hardened, down-on-his-luck protagonist of Galveston knows several times over, life has a funny way of knocking you off path. The on-the-run crime thriller had a director and a lead attached and was close to beginning production shortly after the end of True Detective season 1, but ultimately fell into development hell. A year later, the highly anticipated True Detective season 2 was a widely-panned flop that put the series’ future into question. Still, Pizzolatto’s newfound notoriety surely found the book more fans as the years went on, but the potential film adaptation of Galveston just kind of faded into the background.
Luckily, the project received a second chance at life and it’s better off for it. Premiering at the SXSW Film Festival, Galveston is a faithful adaptation that at times elevates the source material.
Much of that credit goes to French writer-director Mélanie Laurent in her first English-language film. Not much is lost in translation from novel to screen. Laurent introduced the film on stage at SXSW and joked about a Frenchwoman tackling the grit and charm of deeply southern noir of the Golden Triangle, a flavor that drew many fans to the work of the Louisiana-born Pizzolatto. She follows Pizzolatto’s carefully-laid roadmap with scenery that will evoke comparisons to what director Cary Fukunaga accomplished in the first season of True Detective, in particular Galveston also has a memorable tracking shot in a pivotal scene.
Galveston wastes precious little time with pleasantries. The film immediately thrusts the audience into a hospital room where Roy Cady (Ben Foster) is diagnosed with terminal cancer. His day only worsens when he realizes his girlfriend is openly sleeping with his boss, who later that evening sets Roy up during a heist. Escaping the clutches of seemingly certain death, Roy notices a young woman named Rocky (Elle Fanning) cowering at the bloodshed in the house and takes her with him.
Laurent certainly makes some sacrifices in exposition, shedding Roy’s internal monologue for the raw emotion of a tense, turbulent, but respectful relationship of two strangers on the lam. Laurent taps into what the novel could not touch, utilizing a gutting performance by Elle Fanning to let the audience sympathize with the young woman’s fears and insecurities. While it takes some time to warm up to the tough guy routine Foster is going for, Fanning is electric from start to finish in a performance that should catapult the young actress’ career into an immensely promising next phase.
As it moves into its gripping final act, Galveston lives and dies with the palpable chemistry that develops between Foster and Fanning. For all the bad that happens along the way, and there are some brutally violent scenes that are difficult to stomach, the film is a love story that’s not actually a love story. Roy and Rocky both have their demons. In this life where cancer, crooks, murderers, domestic abusers, and rapists cling to their conscience like an unwanted shadow, there’s something undeniably warm about two broken sinners finding solace and, debatably, redemption, if only for an instant before it all fades to black.