Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Video resolution: 1080p
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Original aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Editor’s Note: Texas Killing Fields was released on Blu Ray and DVD by Achor Bay on January 31st, 2012.
Since the 1970s, some 50 young women have gone missing or been found murdered along the stretch of isolated interstate that links Houston, Texas to the Gulf Coast town of Galveston. That grim fact is the inspiration for Texas Killing Fields, the belated sophomore feature from Ami Canaan Mann, which takes its title from an undeveloped tract on the outskirts of Texas City, locally notorious as a dumping ground for decomposing bodies.
Mann is the daughter of Michael (who serves here as a producer), and like her father she proves abundantly capable of establishing an arresting mood. With the aid of the dusky cinematography of Stuart Dryburgh (The Piano, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire), and an ominous, understated score from Tindersticks founder Dickon Hinchliffe (Winter’s Bone), Mann imbues her setting with a sense of lurking menace, as though the region itself were an agent in the decades-long litany of deaths and disappearances.
Mann imbues her setting with a sense of lurking menace, as though the region itself were an agent in the decades-long litany of deaths and disappearances.
Less effective, however, is the screenplay by former DEA agent Donald Ferrarone. There’s a potentially engaging jurisdictional triangle at the heart of his story, but it’s largely obscured by what amounts to mediocre amalgam of a basic, post-CSI procedural and a serial killer B movie, in which a devilish antagonist does things like phone the police to taunt them as he’s snuffing his latest victim. Meanwhile, though based on two actual Texas City detectives, Ferrarone’s protagonists belong to the standard-issue partnership of “hot-headed pragmatist” and “principled, sensitive soul,” and his villain, likewise, owes more to Hollywood convention than an attempt at credible, multi-dimensional characterisation.
Sam Worthington and Jeffrey Dean Morgan star as detectives Souder and Heigh (the hot head and the sensitive soul, respectively), who are investigating the murder of a teenage prostitute when Heigh is asked to lend an extra-jurisdictional hand with a case in a nearby township. A young woman’s abandoned car has been discovered on the edge of “the fields,” and local officer Pam Stall (Jessica Chastain) knows a body will soon follow. Despite having greater resources at her disposal, she reaches out to the devoutly religious Heigh, who seems to view solving the killing fields cases as a matter of personal redemption. (His sin, it’s suggested, was failing to crack a similar case before transferring to Texas City from NYC.) Souder, in contrast, wants nothing to do with the missing girl, in part because he believes he and Heigh should follow their own leads on a pair of neighbourhood pimps, and partly because Stall is his ex-wife.
That Texas Killing Fields remains intermittently absorbing owes much to its strong cast, as well as to Mann’s visceral staging of three striking set pieces.
The issue of Heigh’s divided loyalties is, in theory, a compelling conceit, but the filmmakers let it go largely to waste. They, and Heigh, become preoccupied by a subplot involving Little Ann (Chloë Grace Moretz), a put-upon pre-teen whose whoring, meth-addicted mother frequently forces her out of the house. Plainly, the streets of Texas City are no place for a vulnerable stray, and it’s spoiling nothing to reveal that Little Ann becomes implicated in the larger murder mysteries. (Mann telegraphs this development from the film’s earliest scenes, and at one point cuts from a map adorned with photographs of victims’ faces to Moretz staring at her reflection in a mirror.) Indeed, the biggest surprises are how tidily Little Anne’s fate dovetails with the film’s central investigations, and how, barring one red herring that abruptly dead-ends, genuine surprises are fairly few and far between.
That Texas Killing Fields remains intermittently absorbing owes much to its strong cast, as well as to Mann’s visceral staging of three striking set pieces. Worthington suffers from his customary accent wobbles, but, on the whole, delivers one of his most accomplished performances, and Chastain, too, is strong (if underutilized, in contrast to her current general ubiquity), while Moretz, Sheryl Lee, and Stephen Graham are effective in limited roles. The key contributions, though, come from the excellent Morgan and the promising Mann, both of whom distinguish themselves in their handling of Ferrarone’s middling material.
Anchor Bay’s Blu-ray release includes an audio commentary features director Ami Canaan Mann and screenwriter Donald Ferrarone. It’s an informative track, with Ferrarone providing insight into the individuals and actual events that served as the film’s inspiration. (Interestingly, he acknowledges the good-cop/bad-cop cliché, but insists that the characters of Sauder and Heigh reflect the contrasting personalities of the detectives on whom they are based.) Mann’s contributions are slightly less illuminating, as her observations are often self-evident, though she does offer some noteworthy technical details. Also included is the film’s theatrical trailer.
[notification type=”star”]55/100 ~ MEDIOCRE. Atmospheric and well-acted, Texas Killing Fields suffers from a generic, true-crime screenplay that draws on familiar serial killer tropes.[/notification]