Texas Killing Fields

Texas Killing Fields

Static Mass Rating: 3/5

Release date: April 9th, 2012
Certificate (UK): 15
Running time: 105 minutes

Director: Ami Canaan Mann
Writer: Don Ferrarone

Cast: Sam Worthington, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jessica Chastain, Chloë Grace Moretz, Jason Clarke

As the credits rolled on last year’s moody cop thriller Texas Killing Fields, I noticed the director’s name, Ami Canaan Mann, the daughter of Michael Mann. It reminded me of the moment when, after watching Surveillance (2008), I realised the director was none other than Jennifer Lynch, the daughter of David Lynch.

In Surveillance it was easy to see, with hindsight, the influence of the father on the daughter through the bizarre characters but ultimately, the film lacked a decent plot, script or performance to lift it above any other low budget crime thriller.

In that instance though, Lynch’s style did at least make it mildly memorable and the situation is pretty similar with Mann’s effort.

Texas Killing Fields

Unlike Surveillance, Texas Killing Fields is by no means bad, but whilst it’s riveting, there is not enough about it to make it especially good either. Like many of her father’s films, it drips with mood and atmosphere and as such I was entirely engrossed, after the credits rolled I found myself more and more disappointed with it.

The plot is based on a series of real-life murders in the 1970’s, known as the Killing Fields, that resulted in the deaths of 30 young women in the area.

In the film, detectives Souder (Sam Worthington) and Heigh (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) work their beat in Texas City but are pulled into the case of the Killing Fields murders when the lead officer from that case Pam (Jessica Chastain), who just happens to be Souder’s ex-wife, seeks out Heigh’s help. Alongside the dead women in the Fields, there is also a body in Texas City and as Heigh becomes more embroiled in Pam’s case – especially after the killer calls their phone and allows them to hear a woman die – Souder is left to deal with their own case mostly alone.

There is a lot that seems of interest in Texas Killing Fields. The central plot is sprawling, taking in the decades of unsolved murders, the most recent bodies and the tough home life of wayward teenager Little Ann (Chloë Grace Moretz). There’s also the comings and goings of sinister tattooed local Rule (Jason Clarke).

Texas Killing Fields

Unfortunately, Don Ferrarone’s handling of these multiple threads doesn’t lead to an entirely cohesive whole. The case of the killings in the fields is almost a background and summed up mostly through a pin board of photos with the killings connected by bits of thread on Heigh’s wall. It fails to take on any particular significance and the way that murders are connected, if they indeed are, is never made entirely clear.

This also leads to Souder’s half of the plot being somewhat open-ended; which is fine, as long as it doesn’t feel un-concluded, which unfortunately in this case, it does.

This got me thinking about the very fine line that a film walks when it wants to be mysterious or subtle and leave things to the audience’s imagination or certain aspects unexplained for effect. It is perfectly acceptable for things not to be explicit in a film. In fact many people like an air of mystery and the suggestions of a wider world or a deeper history that is not covered in the film’s narrative, but they shouldn’t feel like they’ve just been neglected. They must come away feeling satisfied with what they saw but still intrigued by what was only suggested.

Texas Killing Fields

In the case of Texas Killing Fields, I think it was aiming for this but instead it came across as a feeling certain things were not given enough time or thought. This is especially noticeable in the character development. Both Souder and Heigh seem to have deep seated emotional issues and past horrors perhaps that we are not privy to. As these are not explained, some of their behaviour seems odd and I struggled to invest emotionally in what they are trying to do.

For instance, Heigh is clearly someone who is prone to becoming embroiled in difficult ongoing cases. This is suggested by his conversations with his wife – hinting at an unsolved series of murders that he never cracked – and by Souder’s opinion that Pam knows what will happen if she asks him to help. We want to know more about Heigh’s developing obsession with the Killing Fields murders and because we’re not familiar enough with it means we struggle to sympathise with his position.

Similarly, Souder’s character is so angry, both at the criminals and at Heigh for neglecting his own patch. This must be down to previous events, but as we don’t know of them, it is hard to understand his frustrations. Chastain’s Pam is so small a part that, although she’s convincing, we understand little of her relationship with either of the leads.

Texas Killing Fields

The actors all do commendable jobs, especially Moretz, but ultimately the characters actually feel pretty superficial. Despite the implied depth you just wish more time was given to getting to know them. Perhaps the sprawling plot and suggested troubled pasts would have been best explored through a TV series than a film.

Ultimately, it’s a compelling way to spend a couple of hours, with a fantastically palpable sense of atmosphere, but a confused plot and an underdeveloped cast of characters prevents it from being a far better thriller.

Still, the same cast and director working with a better, or longer format, script would be an interesting proposition and I’ll be very interested to see what Mann does next.

About Ben Nicholson

Ben Nicholson

Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.

His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.

Ben has his own film site, ACHILLES AND THE TORTOISE, and you can follow him on Twitter @BRNicholson.