Tuesday 16 August 2016

Movie Review: Texas Killing Fields (2011)

A bleak crime drama, Texas Killing Fields offers a moody atmosphere, but is undermined and ultimately sunk by a cluttered and wayward script.

In Texas City, the body of a brutally murdered young woman is discovered. Detectives Mike Souder (Sam Worthington) and Brian Heigh (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) start to investigate. Meanwhile Detective Pam Stall (Jessica Chastain) is responsible for the surrounding rural area, notorious for the high number of murdered and missing women dating back to the 1970s. Pam also has a missing woman case on her hands and calls for help from Brian and Mike, the latter being her former husband.

Complicating life for the detectives is concern for Anne Sliger (Chloë Grace Moretz), a young teenager living with her white trash single mother Lucie (Sheryl Lee) and older brother Eugene (James Hebert). Lucie is a local whore of sorts, and the menacing Rhino (Stephen Graham) appears to move into her house to help himself to a piece of her action.

Mike wants to focus his effort on the Texas City murder, while Brian, a deeply religious man, is more inclined to widen the investigation to help Pam and include the surrounding swampy fields. Mike zeroes in on pimps Levon (Jon Eyez) and Rule (Jason Clarke) as potentially involved in murder, while Brian enlists the services of a phone company contact to try and triangulate the origins of cell phone calls linked to the murders. The detectives soon find themselves being taunted and drawn into a deadly game with the mysterious killer.

Inspired by real events and directed by Ami Canaan Mann (daughter of Michael Mann), Texas Killing Fields throws plenty of characters and events of the screen, but fails to make any of them count. Three detectives, four creepy possible villains, several victims, many crime scenes, plus a few side-plots: there is plenty going on, and unfortunately none of it captivates. The film is stylishly assembled and the lead performances are professional enough, but the final product is badly let down by a confused script and poor execution.

The film is written by Don Ferrarone and it does appear that in trying to create a dramatic fictional narrative, the enormity of the real life agonies and tragedies of the Texas Killing Fields along Interstate 45 overwhelmed the writing. The resultant tone is simply off. Somehow, the most important debate presented in the film is whether Mike and Brian should or should not help Pam, who is outside their jurisdiction. On multiple occasions Mike berates Brian for venturing into the hinterlands instead of sticking close to home. With everything going on, it's a stupefying issue to repeatedly waste screen time on.

Meanwhile, we learn precious little about Mike, Brian and Pam, except that they are grim faced, dour and fairly snappy with each other. The ashes of the relationship between Mike and Pam just scatter in the wind, serving no purpose. Similarly Brian's religious fervor is introduced and forgotten.

The murder suspects fare much worse. Levon, Rule, Rhino and Eugene must be despicable characters because they scowl at the camera, have tattoos, and generally look the way pedophiles and pimps are supposed to. They remain prototypical bad guys with no backstory. Even less is known about the murder victims and their families. And then Mann throws into the mix even more peripheral characters in the form of prostitutes and runaway kids, who drift in and out of various scenes and serve to further distract from a focus that is never found.

With Worthington, Morgan and Chastain stuck in angry detective mode, it is left to Chloë Grace Moretz and Sheryl Lee to deliver the most affecting performances in relatively small roles. Moretz is steady, her vulnerability representing potential victims who come from hopelessly broken homes. Lee is the stand-out performer as Lucie, a woman so far gone into desperation that she routinely kicks her daughter out of the house to better serve her sleazy clients.

Despite earnest intentions and no shortage of talent, Texas Killing Fields is messier than grasslands trampled by an unruly herd, and a regrettably wasted opportunity.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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