Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Movie Review: Texas Killing Fields

Texas Killing Fields **
Directed by: Ami Canaan Mann.
Written by: Don Ferrarone.
Starring: Sam Worthington (Det. Mike Souder), Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Brian Heigh), Chloë Grace Moretz (Little Anne Sliger), Corie Berkemeyer (Shauna Kittredge), Sheryl Lee (Lucie Sliger), James Hébert (Eugene Sliger), Stephen Graham (Rhino), Jessica Chastain (Det. Pam Stall), Annabeth Gish (Gwen Heigh).

It would be unfair to compare any second time director to Michael Mann, but because he is the producer or Texas Killing Fields, as well as the father of director Ami Canaan Mann, and because the film itself hits on some of the subjects that Mann has built his career on, the comparison is inevitable. It must be said that Texas Killing Fields is a stylish movie – not quite as stylish as Michael Mann’s films – but damn close. Ami Canaan Mann shows a real visual sense behind the camera with this film. Unfortunately, what she does not show is much of a gift for storytelling. The movie’s plot is muddled and confusing. What’s surprising is that for the most part, the performances are pretty good, which is odd since the movie is so poorly written and plotted.

The movie takes places in Texas (obviously) where for years dead bodies have been showing up in the bayou, which the police have dubbed the Texas Killing Fields. Mostly, these are prostitutes and drug users, and the police are never able to solve them. Whether they are the work of one serial killer, multiple serial killers or just individual crimes no one really knows. The movie is loosely based on a real life story that has no solution. So, of course, the movie provides one.

The movie opens with one murder that Detectives Soulder (Sam Worthington) and Heigh (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) investigate, where of course, the body winds up in the Killing Fields. In the next town over, another murder of a young woman happens at around the same time, and fits the same pattern. This one is being investigated by Detective Stall (Jessica Chastain), who is Soulder’s ex-wife. Like many police departments, these two don’t want together – that would mean sharing the credit if an arrest is made. But, of course, by not working together, an arrest becomes less likely. Heigh tries to bridge the gap – he seems obsessed by the case – but departmental politics, and ex-spouses, have a way of getting in the way of that.

The most interesting character in the movie is Little Anne Sliger (Chloe Grace Moretz, giving yet another exceptional performance for a child actor following her work in Kick Ass and Let Me In). She’s lives with her mother (Sheryl Lee), who to describe her as white trash would be giving her too much credit. We know the men around these two are involved in the murders somehow – because otherwise, why the hell else would any of them be in the movie?

On the surface, this probably sounds like a gripping police procedural – and well it should have been. But the plot of the movie is a mess. Nothing in the movie seems to flow from one scene to the next. Things that seem vitally important one scene are completely dropped afterwards, and never brought up again. There are times when I literally felt like entire scenes and sequences were missing, because the plot is so scattershot.

So, it is quite remarkable that Moretz, along with Jeffrey Dean Morgan, actually end up creating real characters from what they have to work with. Morgan has a world weariness about him, but is driven by an obsession, not unlike the one that drove the Robert Graysmith in David Fincher’s masterpiece Zodiac, a film I think this one is trying hard to emulate, and failing. Sam Worthington remains a fairly mild, dull hero for a movie, and this year’s It Girl Jessica Chastain is completely wasted in her role. So far this year she’s been excellent in The Tree of Life, The Debt, The Help and Take Shelter, so I guess four out of five ain’t bad. The film also gets the visual look just about right, and the bayou, and the small, dusty Texas towns feels authentic. Had they been able to figure out the story better – to make it clearer, more concise – than Texas Killing Fields would have had a shot at greatness. Unfortunately, it don’t even come close.

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