Mark Reviews Movies

Texas Killing Fields


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Ami Canaan Mann

Cast: Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Sam Worthington, Chloë Grace Mortez, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Graham, James Hébert, Jason Clarke, Jon Eyez, Sheryl Lee, Annabeth Gish

MPAA Rating: R (for violence and language including some sexual references)

Running Time: 1:45

Release Date: 10/14/11 (limited); 10/21/11 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 20, 2011

Texas Killing Fields reduces the police procedural to its bare essentials. Here are two dogged detectives doing the legwork of examining crime scenes and questioning possible suspects, a pair of inhuman serial killers abducting teenage girls and unceremoniously dumping their bodies in alleyways and a bayou notorious for a history of death, and a town where the locals are simply trying to make do to the best of their abilities. Director Ami Canaan Mann (daughter of Michael) envisions these tried-and-true elements as the parts of a mood piece about how a laid-back community (of law enforcement and regular citizens) gradually finds itself in fear and turmoil.

It begins with an almost airy quality, as the camera floats through the everyday lives of the central characters and a deserted car in the middle of nowhere that helps set in motion the investigation. Elsewhere, Detectives Brian Heigh (an effectively weary Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Mike Souder (a brooding Sam Worthington) are called in to a report of the discovery of the body of a young girl. Donald F. Ferrarone's screenplay doles out the qualities of its characters in the legwork. As Souder insists they immediately get to work surveying the surrounding area for clues, Heigh recognizes that rain is approaching. After the covering the body with a protective tarp, he kneels down over it, places his hand on the girl's forehead, and begins to pray.

There's a relaxed atmosphere among these people. Nothing is rushed; they act as if they have all the time in the world. When Heigh and Souder bring a young girl on probation for an unspoken offense (Whatever it might have been, it means nothing to these two, who, despite what she might have done, only see a girl in need of help) named Anne (Chloë Grace Mortez)—affectionately called "Little Anne" by Heigh, which ties into another missing girl dubbed "Little Debbie" by those who knew her—home, they find her mother Lucie (Sheryl Lee), a seemingly independent prostitute, entertaining clientele. This is a commonplace occurrence, especially for Souder who grew up in the area, and instead of making a case out of the affair, they scare the customers off ("You have kids") and intimidate her boyfriend Rhino (Stephen Graham), whose workplace Souder pays a visit to later on just make sure the guy notices, and older son Eugene (James Hébert).

Urgency in this situation is unnecessary, but after Detective Pam Stall (an empowered Jessica Chastain) from a neighboring county, who also happens to be Souder's ex-wife, requests some help on the case of the abandoned car and the missing girl who had been driving it, Heigh sees a pattern forming in the area. Girls go missing and are then found in a marsh known to the local inhabitants as the "Killing Fields." Nothing good has ever come out of there, the long-timers note; even the Native Americans who were pushed into that area regressed into practicing cannibalism. No one wants to venture into them, even when confronted with dire circumstances; the place means death.

Ferrarone's script stumbles in some fundamental ways, primarily that the investigation comes across as fragmented. Leads are left unexplained, so, for example, how Heigh and Souder wind up interrogating a pimp named Levon (Jon Eyez) or visiting a shelter for victimized girls is unclear. While it falls in line with what is essentially the two grasping at straws, it works better on a simple thematic level. This is especially true when Heigh and Souder come to a parting of the ways: The former takes to working with Stall, and the latter starts tracking Levon and an associate named Rule (Jason Clarke) who fits the description of a man who's regularly seen with Levon's underage prostitutes (He's too honest with Heigh—a sense of invulnerability to the law—when the detective asks about the missing 15-year-old girl: "She said she was 16").

The central theme is of constant, inescapable danger lurking around every corner. Rule begins following Anne, whose homelife is treacherous enough with the abusive Rhino. He leaves her to walk to the long route home down an empty road as twilight approaches. A pause in the main story, which follows a young mother (Leanne Cochran) as she hangs laundry and puts her child to bed before an unseen intruder drags her into the bathroom as the child watches, is particularly intense. Stuart Dryburgh's cinematography cloaks the proceedings in darkness.

As with the implementation of the story, the characters are defined to their most crucial points, and they arise organically. Heigh is devastated when one of the killers calls Souder's office so that the detectives can hear the cries of one of their victims. While talking with his wife (Annabeth Gish), the two reveal that they left New York so that he might escape such horrors; he is now terrified that another monster might get away. Souder (who reveals the origin of the chip on his shoulder when an old friend of his father regales him with a story of his dad's drunken past) and Stall (who slaps a person of interest when he mouths off to her), meanwhile, show how their hardheaded natures lead to conflict.

Ferrarone maintains the focus on the characters, and Mann generates an overwhelming ambience of helplessness. Whatever shortcomings the piecemeal narrative presents, Texas Killing Fields compensates for them with these strengths.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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