Back in 2008, Galveston, Texas, was devastated by Hurricane Ike. Ike destroyed buildings, upset the routines of entire communities, and killed and injured many. While most of Galveston, which opens on Friday at Silverspot Cinema in Orange Village and comes to On Demand that same day, takes place in 1988 and has nothing to do with hurricanes, Ike nevertheless frames and bookends the film, which happily exists in the classic "on-the-road, nowhere to go" genre in the style of Terrence Malick's Badlands.
Roy (Ben Foster) is a hitman who's just been diagnosed with lung cancer. We learn just how hard-headed he is when, during the movie's first scene, he storms out of the doctor's office and lights up a cigarette immediately after hearing the news. He works for a New Orleans mob faction that operates in a textile factory. His boss (Beau Bridges), a cross between Pat Riley and Trump, with a cartoonish Bayou accent to boot, sets Roy up to be killed on an otherwise routine mission. Roy manages to escape, along with a hooker named Raquel (Elle Fanning), who was being held captive for unexplained reasons. Out of necessity, they flee New Orleans in Roy's car and head to Galveston for safety.
The movie is largely about the importance of loyalty and how cheaply it can be discarded. Roy comes off as what a non-American would imagine a stereotypically masculine American man to be, (tattooed, lean, self-reliant, abusive, loyal first and foremost to himself), so his decision to protect Raquel and Tiffany, a young girl she says is her sister whom she picks up on their way to Galveston with no obvious benefit, seems out of character. It transforms the movie from what looks to be an anti-hero narrative into one of redemption, seemingly motivated by Roy's desire to get back at those who back-stabbed him and a weird but not uncommon combination of fatherly instincts toward Raquel paired with confused sexual attraction.
Galveston also tries really hard to be an art film. It jumps around from scene to scene in a trippy, impressionistic way, a lot like Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice, which is probably what I enjoyed most about the film. But every "art film" trope beyond this stylistic choice comes off as inauthentic. Galveston wants to make the mundane transcendental, where characters find God while reading the paper in a diner, playing on the beach, or dancing at a bar to a live country band. But the way it does so is incredibly heavy-handed, almost guilting the viewer into playing along with the notion that these scenes are deeper than they are.
Despite two major action scenes in the movie, Galveston never really wakes up; the film is sleep-walking. Yet, even though both Foster's and Fanning's characters are almost parodies of "tough guy" and "damsel in distress" tropes, you can't help but feel like they're doing an extremely good job at what they are being told to do. While the film falls flat in almost every conventional metric, it can also be seen as a deconstructive comic parody of traditional boy-saves-girl redemption stories, and when I watched it that way, I found myself quite enjoying it. Perhaps most importantly, despite its failures, Galveston at least tries to be ambitious. It clearly hasn't been focused-grouped, and its success in theaters is likely a toss-up.
Galveston in the end is about taking refuge, whether it be from the mob, 2008's Hurricane Ike or 2018's Hurricane Michael. In the end, for Roy, the storm is his refuge.