We’re in the slow season for high-profile new releases but there are plenty of worthwhile films that never make it to the big cinema complexes. Two such movies are Galvestonand Woman at War, which I’ll review this week as a double feature.
Galveston is directed by Mélanie Laurent, better known for her work in front of the camera, and scripted by Nic Pizzolato, the man behind True Detective– a series that wowed audiences in its first season and lost them in the second. That Jekyll & Hyde quality is on display in a film which has some gripping moments and touches of poetry, but ultimately leaves a nasty aftertaste.
The saving grace is the quality of the performances from the two leads: Ben Foster as Roy, a 40-year-old hard man whose human side emerges when he is forced to confront his own mortality; and Elle Fanning as Rocky, a 19-year-old girl-child whose sole means of support is her pale, thin body. A failed enforcer and an amateur hooker, they come together when one of Roy’s jobs for the local mob boss goes horribly wrong and flight is the only option.
They are a mismatched duo, but united in the hopelessness of their predicament. Roy has a spot on his lungs that makes him feel he is carrying his own death around with him. Rocky, after runnning away from a dead-end town and an abusive step-father, has nothing in her life except a younger sister, Tiffany, whom she snatches on their way west, as they drive from New Orleans to Texas.
By the time they arrive in Galveston the three of them form a rough version of the nuclear family. Roy’s feelings for Rocky are instinctively paternal rather than sexual, complicated by his self-pity and self-loathing. She has come to depend on him, despite his brooding and his binges. For long periods the film goes nowhere, letting us feel the futility of their lives. When the narrative isn’t becalmed in melancholy it’s incredibly violent, and the transitions can be jarring.
This is a movie that stays lodged in one’s mind, although the images are not pleasant. I was left thinking of Roy’s tortured bouts of misery, as he confronts his wasted life in one darkened room after another. Or Rocky, breaking down in tears when forced to tell Roy the truth about her childhood. Finally, there was a brutal twist that seemed to poison the entire story. I’m not prone to pine for falsely happy endings, but in this case the smallest trace of redemption would have been welcome.
Where Galveston is a contemporary film noir, Woman at War is more of a fairy tale, or perhaps a latter-day saga, in which a middle-aged, female viking goes into battle against the forces of corporate greed in Iceland.
The film is not exactly a comedy but it preserves a peculiarly cheerful tone, no matter what happens. This is partly due to director Benedikt Erlingsson’s unique approach to background music. Every time we hear a tune a trio of musicians appear in the background. Sometimes they are already in place waiting for the lead character, occasionally they exchange a nod with her and look for a cue. The music too, is raucous and jaunty, employing drums, piano accordion and sousaphone. As a variation we get a group of woman in Ukrainian national costume singing a folk song.
Another vaguely comical touch is a Spanish-speaking tourist (Juan Camillo Roman Estrada), who keeps turning up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Like the musicians he acts as a chorus, although not in the manner of Greek tragedy.
Halla (Halldora Gerarðsdottir), our heroine, is waging a one-woman campaign against a gigantic aluminum smelter, taking on heavy industry armed only with a bow and arrow, and a good deal of ingenuity. Her anonymous acts of sabotage are causing uproar among the politicians and the press.
When Halla stops playing the ecological avenger she works as a choir-mistress. She argues the case for direct action with her twin sister, Ása (also played by Gerarðsdottir), a yoga teacher devoted to the path of inner enlightenment. This dialogue about the boundaries of personal responsibility and the pursuit of public or private goals, lies at the heart of the story.
Halla, who has framed pictures of Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi in her living room, is prepared to do whatever it takes to help save the planet, but her resolve is tested when she learns that an application to be a foster mother has been successful.
Faced with the prospect of bringing up a Ukrainian orphan named Nika she has to reassess her dangerous campaign. She realises she is about to be responsible for another human being in a way that contradicts her devotion to abstract ideals.
Halla imagines herself as Robin Hood, but is being portrayed in the media as a ruthless terrorist – an insult that makes her even more determined to act. This leads to a long sequence in which she is pursued over the tundra by police and soldiers, giving us an extended view of the spectacular volcanic scenery for which Iceland is famous. It seems as if Halla is intent on a fight to the finish, but there is a surprise at the end and an oblique bit of near-Biblical symbolism that leaves us wondering whether her acts of heroism are more necessary than ever, or already too late.
Directed by Mélanie Laurent
Written by Nic Pizzolato (as Jim Hammett)
Starring Ben Foster, Elle Fanning, Beau Bridges, Robert Aramayo, Anniston Price, C.K.McFarland
USA, rated MA 15+, 91 mins
Woman at War
Directed by Benedikt Erlingsson
Written by Ólafur Eglisson, Benedikt Erlingsson
Starring Halldóra Gerarðsdottir, Jóhann Sigurðarson, Jörrundur Ragnarsson, Juan Camillo Roman Estrada
Iceland/France/Ukraine, rated M, 101 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 6 April, 2019