After more than a decade of directing for television, Ami Canaan Mann (Friday Night Lights, Morning) returns to feature films with the dark crime drama Texas Killing Fields. The script was first commissioned a decade ago by her father, director Michael Mann (Heat, Public Enemies), who acts as producer here. At one time director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 127 Hours) was attached to the film, but he backed out, stating that the film was too dark to ever get made. The film stars Sam Worthington, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jessica Chastain, and Chloe Grace Moretz. Hit the jump for my review of the Texas Killing Fields Blu-ray.
Based on the actual murders of over 60 women in Texas over several decades, Texas Killing Fields follows homicide detectives Mike (Worthington) and Brian (Morgan) on their hunt for a serial killer. During a crime scene early on, we learn that Mike is the hotheaded of the two, while Brian is the compassionate father-figure. Their investigation crosses over to another jurisdiction, where Detective Pam Stall (Chastain) is investigating a young girl’s disappearance. The cases all link up at an infamous location near the Gulf of Mexico known to locals as the killing fields; a large, brooding stretch of marsh that is so cursed not even Native Americans dare tread through them. A great litmus test for “cursed” if I’ve ever heard one.
While Brian gradually allows his emotional barriers to weaken (something a cop should never do) he becomes more engulfed in the case. Mike warns Brian to leave it alone; he knows that Brian has a history of taking his dead girls home with him. Mike is also wary because Detective Stall is Mike’s ex-wife, who never misses a chance to give him hell. Also a focus in the film is Anne Sliger (Moretz) a young girl from a not just a broken home, but a broken whorehouse. Brian and Mike run into Anne a lot on the streets and they look out for her as best as two cops who are trying to stop a serial killer can. Anne’s mother (Sheryl Lee) kicks her out of the house while she “entertains” a revolving cast of local roughnecks, including the always fantastic Stephen Graham (Public Enemies, Boardwalk Empire).
The film starts off like a standard police procedural, but shortly after the opening crime scene Mann begins to infuse it with an ubiquitous feeling of dread that in the end makes the film feel more like a ghost story than a crime thriller. I appreciate what Mann was going for with her bold desire to dodge the trappings of the crime genre, but sometimes sticking to well established structures is better than showboating. Mann uses a variety of director “tricks” throughout that sadly just come off as incompetent. That most annoying being the ridiculous amount of long tracking shots, usually moving around stationary characters. Speaking of characters, in Mann’s Texas every male who isn’t a cop is a skeevy reprobate.
The film is made watchable by the actors and photography. The commonly bland Worthington fills the role of the lonely, disinterested detective Mike very well. Chastain delivers as the headstrong, take-no-crap female cop. While Worthington and Chastain are great, Morgan knocks it out of the park. He brings a weathered grace to role of Brian that reflects perfectly the less-is-more approach to acting. The photography is haunting and adds as much to the suspense as the actual exposition. The locations, which include trailer parks, poacher bars, and the fields themselves, are just as much characters in this story as the actors.
Texas Killing Fields is a great effort that’s only saved by it’s actors and atmosphere. In order for a crime story to remain cohesive, you can’t stray too far from a traditional structure or you’ll lose the audience in all your tedious tracking shots and dispensable scenes. Mann should have taken some notes from her dad, whose films, whether you like them or not, are always tightly structured.
Anchor Bay’s Blu-ray presents the film in widescreen (2.40:1) and in Dolby TrueHD 7.1 audio. The dialogue is so low key in some parts I ended up watching it with subtitles on (English and Spanish available). The 1080p captures the crisp shadows and even though a hefty amount of night shooting was done, the shots’ details are never lost. Supplements are slim, with only a trailer and commentary by director Mann and writer Donald F. Ferrarone. The two talk a lot about the research that went into the film and how deeply they strove for authenticity in all aspects from dress to dialogue. Mann, along with Worthington and Morgan, rode along with homicide detectives in Los Angeles, visited morgues, and locations where bodies were found in TX. Mann and Ferrarone also go into detail about the actual Texas detectives that Worthington and Morgan were portraying.