Exhibiting immense technique, incredibly moody, tense atmospheres and meticulously crafted aesthetics, the dark crime thriller, “Texas Killing Fields,” demonstrates that director Ami Canaan Mann has inherited some serious skills from her famous filmmaking father Michael Mann.
A dark, intense and psychologically bruising picture, the technical chops evinced in Mann’s belated sophomore feature-length are impressive – from adept editing, first-rate choreography of shots (plus a few artful establishing ones) and perfectly gloomy cinematography, she’s got it all down cold. However, while she’s clearly got an eye for filmmaking, the rest of the film could use a little (or a lot of) work as there’s a litany of problems that eventually make for a deeply unsatisfying picture.
Opening well, right in the middle of conflict, we’re introduced to Mike Sounder (an unintelligible Sam Worthington); a local homicide detective investigating the appearance of female body in the nearby bayous. His new partner is Brian Heigh, a cop from New York (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who is helping him investigate what appears to be a new addition to a series of unsolved murders.
What’s nice is the fact that, we’re not really told how, when and why a New York cop relocated his family all the way to Texas. What we learn through various bits of dialogue is he’s relatively new and not having had this spoonfed off the top in exposition feels like a promising beginning.
Likewise, another detective on the crime scene is a fiery redhead Detective Pam Stall (Jessica Chastain), who we learn is Sounder’s ex-wife (though truthfully, this plot point feels a little too convenient and contrived, the first clue of amiss things to come).
The picture has a lot of characters and they all don’t help streamline the story. And some are downright unnecessary. Chloë Grace Moretz plays Anne Sliger, a tough latchkey kid from a broken home, Sheryl Lee (Laura Palmer from “Twin Peaks”) plays her drug-addicted, prostituting mother and Stephen Graham, plays Rhino, the mother’s boyfriend. Along with Eugene Sliger (James Hébert), they make for a scuzzy, strange and dysfunctional white-trash family peripherally connected to the main storyline (A concerned Heigh is sympathetic, constantly watching to see that the troubled girl is not up to no good).
When the latest body is found Heigh and Sounder start canvassing the neighborhood and the nearby women’s shelters – a locale full of damaged girls that the resident pimps prey on. They begin to question and harass one of these men named Levon (Jon Eyez), who is associated to a thug and recent suspect called Rule (Jason Clarke).
During their investigation, a brutal home invasion takes place and a young single mother escapes death by sheer luck and accident. These scenes are genuinely frightening, shot with a tense and disquieting tenor that is haunting. Foiled by the revelation that there are two murders working in tandem, the cops are then taunted as the sociopaths call them from the cell phones of women they are about to kill. It's a gripping, if familiar, first act, but the picture begins to quickly devolve from there.
While not exploited early on, the cop who’s out of his element cliché – he should just let Texans do business like Texans do – becomes tired fast. Police sting operations become bungled so badly one wonders if it’s a manpower issue, or if screenwriter (and former DEA officer) Don Ferrarone simply wanted to more conflict, and it ultimately feels contrived. Emotions get the best of the cops to the point of maddening illogic – we’re told countlessly that the Texas killing fields are not a place to enter, let alone by oneself, but of course, these bickering cops do such foolhardy things. And so on and so on.
Some leads end up as red herrings, but the threads are never resolved, and considering how much they impact the story – two suspects murder cops and precipitate insane and destructive car chases in the middle of the day – their unanswered conclusions feel like confused plotting that was never quite thought through.
And of course, when the eventual killers are revealed – not who you thought it was, but there were hints the whole time! – there’s very little by way of motivation other then we’re lead to believe these men are sociopaths. Gee, really? Thanks, woulda never figured that one.
Casting is a major issue. “Avatar” star and Australian actor Sam Worthington, cast as a native Texan when American actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan is also in the cast seems like a deeply puzzling decision. Worthington’s version of a Southern accent is mumbled incoherence – a bizarre choice perhaps as an attempt to mask his accent’s shortcomings. As the “soul” of the picture, Morgan fairs better, but its unclear if he’ll ever be able to go beyond the limited range he's displayed during a lifetime of TV work.
Chastain’s role is typically rote on the page, but like a lot of her thankless roles this year (“Take Shelter” could have been one), this fine actress injects an urgency to everything she does and always elevates middling material. As a moody pre-teen, Moretz outdoes Morgan in their constant tête-à-tête conflicts, but her character is thin and there’s not a lot to latch onto. Stephen Graham, meanwhile, proves not all English-speaking foreign actors are created equally. While Worthington’s garbled burble is supposed to pass as a Southern accent, Graham masters his like he’s been practicing it his whole life.
Impractical, frustrating plotting and a weak third act that cannot stick the landing ultimately torpedo a picture that starts strong and has a lot of value. There’s a lot of individual things to admire about “Texas Killing Fields,” at least early on, but as a whole, it’s deeply flawed, rather predictable police procedural that says absolutely nothing novel about killers, prey or law men. [C]