In the days leading up to the release of Texas Killing Fields I was driving to rendezvous with some friends in the back of my neighborhood. It was a section of town that was foreign to me, despite having been a resident of thirty years; I never had a reason before to drive all the way back there. Although I was unsuccessful in locating the house – it was dark and the houses were poorly lit – the amount of wooded area between houses and connecting streets left me thinking of how easy it would be to drop a body in the woods.
Which leads us to Texas Killing Fields, a film revolving around bodies found up and down a stretch of bayou land in Southeast Texas.
When you see the words “inspired by true events,” which this film is, you have to know that the situations presented are not a true depiction of what occurred. A hint of truth may exist, but for the most part the inspiration is just a jumping off point to create a narrative that can make the transition to a feature film.
And that’s part of the problem.
The history of the killing fields stretches decades, so there’s more than enough material to warrant a cable miniseries or, even better, an anthology series involving the different officers who investigated cases involving women who went missing only to be discovered in different bayous or hideaways in Texas.
Instead, the movie with a killer title takes a story inspired by actual crimes and gives us a well-worn police procedural populated by a pair of detectives, unscrupulous characters and a waiflike teen who is a metaphorical embodiment of all the females who have ever been silenced and dumped in and around Texas City, Tex.
Detectives Mike Souder (Sam Worthington) and Brian Heigh (Jeffrey Dead Morgan) don’t always see eye to eye but they work the case and they work it hard. Taking the call to investigate the murder of a young teen, the investigation should be enough to keep them busy. However, in another jurisdiction another woman has gone missing along a stretch of what the locals call the killing fields. The detective working that case, Pam Stall (Jessica Chastain), reaches out to Heigh for assistance, and not his partner Souder, who, is quickly revealed to be her ex-husband. Such a decision on the part of Don Ferrarone, a former DEA agent who has served as a technical advisor on the films The Taking of Pelham 123 and Déjà vu (Texas Killing Fields is his first produced screenplay), seems contrived, very TV drama. Of course, this means Souder will somehow get involved and be around his ex from time to time.
What’s worse is a film that takes on two different police investigations and doesn’t provide enough investigating or attention to detail to sustain interest. Heigh is a compelling figure, though little effort is spent to expand his arc. A short sequence with his wife (Annabeth Gish) reveals that their move from New York City to Texas was mitigated by his being drained by the grind of working serial murder cases. And yet here he is again helping on a case that is beyond his jurisdiction that could be the work of a serial killer.
Throw in a subplot that involves Heigh helping a young local girl, Ann Sliger (Chloe Grace Moretz), retain some modicum of stability in her ramshackle home populated by a sleazy mom (Sheryl Lee) and men, if you can call them that, who seem to come and go like a revolving door, and you begin to question the logic. As the story progresses you understand why Sliger’s part is important.
Actually, while Sliger is the emotional core (and by far the most interesting character), the story is driven by Heigh and Souder. They have the distinction of coming from different schools of thought – Heigh is a big-city cop in a small Texas town, while Souder is the long-time Texas City resident who is familiar with its inhabitants. Despite these differences they react in similar fashion when questioning suspects (translation: easily overheated and prone to violence). Again, comes across as another film cliché.
Texas Killing Fields has a great story to tell. Unfortunately for director Ami Canaan Mann, daughter of Michael Mann (Collateral, Heat), she doesn’t quite have a grasp on what she wants her film to be. Is it about the detectives or the girl? Still, the biggest offender is the script, as Mann shows she’s very competent behind the camera when it comes to staging a police car chase or shoot-out. But the major characters lack depth, and supporting characters have nary an introduction and sort of pop up whenever there is a break in the case or where the script calls for a bad apple to be present.
If any compliments are to be bestowed it’s for actors Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Jessica Chastain. For Morgan you applaud his drive to want to solve a series of murders, but also realize he’s the type of detective who has had problems separating work from family. As for Chastain, her character could be worthy of her own film. The way she handles the first minutes at her crime scene seems true to life, and her take-no-guff approach is believable for such a profession. It’s just another memorable, albeit short-lived performance, in a year full of them for Chastain.
Texas Killing Fields had the potential to be film that remained true to the events that were its inspiration. Instead, viewers are left stuck in the mud wondering if a better movie was left out to rot.
Director: Ami Canaan Mann
Notable Cast: Sam Worthington, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jessica Chastain, Chloe Grace Moretz, Jason Clarke, Annabeth Gish, Sheryl Lee, Stephen Graham
Writer(s): Don Ferrarone