In director Mélanie Laurent's Galveston, an uneven but arrestingly beautiful drama, a hitman and a reluctant sex worker struggle to outrun their pasts. After surviving an ambush orchestrated by his crooked boss, hitman Roy (Ben Foster) escapes on the open road with Rocky (Elle Fanning), a teenage captive who witnessed the attack. Both travelers play their cards close to the vest: An X-ray shows that Roy's lungs are filled with splotches as patchy as the Spanish moss that covers most of Laurent's vision of New Orleans, a town that's as toxic for Roy as his illness. He chain-smokes his way through Texas with Rocky before a pit stop to pick up her sister leads to another narrow escape following an ambiguous gunshot. The three find sanctuary at a Galveston motel, plotting their next moves and telling their nosy neighbors they're a family on vacation.
In adapting a novel by True Detective's Nic Pizzolatto, the filmmakers attempt to imbue dark source material with a touch of mercy. Laurent's work as an actor serves her well as a director, and she allows her performers the freedom to find each moment's emotional core. Foster and Fanning are excellent, their chemistry intensified by their characters' shared bitterness and loss of what could have been. This is especially evident when a hopelessly distraught Rocky recounts an agonizing experience to Roy, whose fury at the beginning of the scene melts into compassion. It helps, too, that cinematographer Arnaud Potier captures tenderness and extreme violence with equal skill.