Texas Killing Fields (2011)
Directed by Ami Canaan Mann
Distributed by Anchor Bay Films
Featuring an impeccable cast that includes the likes of Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Watchmen), Sam Worthington (Avatar), Jessica Chastain (The Tree of Life) and Chloë Grace Moretz (Let Me In), Texas Killing Fields headed into limited theaters this past weekend (October 14th), undoubtedly to be overshadowed by a certain blockbuster prequel that happens to be releasing at the same time (i.e., The Thing).
It's kind of a shame that for the most part Texas Killing Fields is likely to go largely unnoticed because while it doesn't necessarily try and re-invent the neo-noir police thriller subgenre of cinema, the movie still manages to be a rather engaging experience wrought with tension and highlighted by some strong performances.
Directed by Ami Canaan Mann (daughter of the iconic Michael Mann), Texas Killing Fields follows two homicide cops in Texas City on the hunt for a mysterious and savage serial killer who dumps the bodies of his female victims in a remote marsh which has been nicknamed "the killing fields" due to the killer's penchant for hiding bodies in the desolate marshy terrain.
In the beginning of Texas Killing Fields, we meet Detectives Mike Sounder (Worthington) and Brian Heigh (Morgan), who are the local detectives on the case of tracking down the culprit that has been kidnapping and killing numerous underage missing girls in the area for decades. And even though both detectives are quite passionate about putting an end to the killings plaguing their rural community, they differ vastly in their professional approach to crime solving; while Mike is a hot-headed and temperamental investigator with a low tolerance for any sort of BS, the always compassionate Brian plays it much cooler when he's trying to deal with the dredges of society (in what feels to be an attempt on his character's part to gain some redemption for whatever may have happened back in New York- an allusion made early on in the movie).
But despite their differences, Mike and Brian do share a soft-heartedness for a local street teen named Little Anne (Moretz), the daughter of drug-addicted slut named Lucie (Lee), who often forces the teenager to leave home for extended periods of time so that Mommy can entertain her "visitors." Brian sees the girl is struggling to keep on the right path in life and does his best to keep a close watch on the teen. But once Little Anne goes missing, the importance of catching the murderer that haunts "the killing fields" has never been more personal for both Brian and Mike as they race against the clock to find Little Anne and the serial killer behind it all before it's too late.
Loosely based on the real-life horror of a serial killer that has been haunting South Texas since sometime in the 1960s, on paper Texas Killing Fields might almost seem like a story you'd expect to see as a TV network's "Movie of the Week" pick back in the 80s (I personally dug that retro vibe); however, it's the compelling performances of the film's leads (Morgan, Worthington and Moretz especially) that keeps this train from derailing, making Texas Killing Fields a far stronger film than one would expect from a first-time feature filmmaker.
And while Ms. Mann isn't quite ready to take up her father's mantle just yet, the young director's efforts on Texas Killing Fields definitely show promise. Mann demonstrates here that she has a keen sense of building atmosphere and is able to successfully maintain tension throughout all three acts of the movie (which is admirable), but where she slips as a storyteller is that the pacing suffers from a bit of unevenness here and there.
One other issue with Texas Killing Fields is that the film feels like it was almost in too much of a hurry to spend time with and flesh out several of the supporting characters, which may have enriched the overall impact of the story. The thriller gets dangerously close to being too surface-y at times (missing out on some good character development opportunities), and the conclusion feels breezy and rushed. Nonetheless, the deeply engaging performances at the core of Texas Killing Fields keep the flick from straying too far or becoming just another melodramatic thriller lacking in substance.
Overall, Texas Killing Fields manages to be one of the more smarter and engaging crime procedurals released as of late and shows promise of an engaging filmmaker on the rise in Mann. Even though it's fair to say that Texas Killing Fields may lack depth and focus at times, it's the talented cast's raw and unflinching performances, coupled with Mann's ability to evoke an atmosphere ripened with palpable fear, that ultimately save the story from itself, making Texas Killing Fields a satisfying effort that should appease most modern neo-noir thriller fans who come in with reasonable expectations.
While it may not be theater ticket price-worthy (and with the limited release, seeing Texas Killing Fields on the big screen may not even be an option in your area), the movie is absolutely deserving of a checking out via its eventual VOD/home release.
3 out of 5