Movie Review: Modest, Chilling TEXAS KILLING FIELDS Tweaks Conventional Cop Procedural

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Reading the reviews for director Ami Canaan Mann’s Texas Killing Fields, one senses a profound air of disappointment.  Nick Pinkerton at The Village Voice called the film “a chaos of underdeveloped relationships and frayed loose ends,” and Chicago Sun-Times reporter Roger Ebert expands on that complaint, writing that “Texas Killing Fields…might have been perfectly absorbing if it had played by the rules: strict logic, attention to detail, reference to technical police work. Unfortunately, the movie often seems to stray.”

Most critics of note feel the same way (the film is currently rocking a 49% favorability rating on Metacritic.com), but I cannot fathom the critical enmity towards this picture.  Texas Killing Fields is an absorbing and tough-minded B-movie with great performances and Mann’s surprisingly lyrical direction.

Her most inspired choice is to gently subvert the conventions of screenwriter Donald Ferrarone’s screenplay.  On the page, Ferrarone has concocted a slightly uneasy mix of insider police detail and generic cop drama; yes, the details surrounding the search for a serial killer of women ring true (Ferrarone was a Texas detective before entering the movie business, and his script is based on a series of horrific unsolved murders in Texas City, Texas), but we’ve seen so many of the trappings before: the central cop relationship between a young hothead (Sam Worthington) and his older, more experienced partner (Jeffrey Dean Morgan); a rival officer (Jessica Chastain) pulling rank to force our heroes’ participation in the manhunt; the older officer becoming obsessed; the collateral damage (Hugo‘s Chloë Grace Moretz) rising; the violent end shootout.  The gang’s all here.

But Mann shifts the tone so that these clichés don’t rankle as much as they should.  The main story runs subordinate to the characters, to the mood, to that left-unsaid; in only 107 minutes, Mann creates a lived-in world populated with individuals, rather than screenwriting tropes.

Little side-details create their own atmosphere.  Morgan’s devout Catholicism seems less sanctimonious than a way of shielding himself from the awful realities of his job.  There’s a whole world of anger and resentment (and buried love) between Chastain and Worthington’s rival cops/ex-lovers.  You sense the freedom that Moretz’s wayward teen has from fending for herself, as well as the twisted love that her prostitute mother (Sheryl Lee) displays when she kicks her daughter out on the streets and away from her wicked ways.  The face of Stephen Graham’s oil roughneck, and the levels of anger and class resentment it holds.  We even recognize that both Morgan and Worthington’s characters greatly value their good-cop/bad-cop dynamic; it brings them closer together, as opposed to generating false conflict.

The gift is the lack of exposition.  We learn about these people through looks, through elliptical remarks, through the way they behave while on-duty and off.  Cop thrillers don’t typically exercise this level of understatement, which makes us pay closer attention.  To a person, the acting is exemplary, with Worthington scoring highest marks; he has some of the same antisocial intensity that made Steve McQueen so magnetic.  Mann’s father Michael—director of Heat and Collateral—has employed this stripped-down elusiveness to character detail in his last two films (Miami Vice and Public Enemies) but whereas his sparing details alienated me from his respective casts, his daughter does a better job of highlighting the humanity in very few moves.

Even the final shootout feels fresh; without going too far into specifics, Mann and Ferrarone sideline the two detectives, giving the film’s violent dénouement mythic resonance—this crime was going to run its course in its own time.  The police are just there to bear witness.

In fact, an eerie grace permeates the whole film.  Part of that results from the shooting on the Texas Gulf Coast.  Mann gets a lot of mileage from the land itself, the steam rising in the pervasive heat, the sudden and terrifying lightning storms, the marshland forests filled with bone-white dead trees.  There’s fairy tale logic at work, as if the serial killer’s sins have bled into the environment itself.

The lack of abundant violence also adds to the mood.  With the exception of the end, Mann shows little blood and no graphic details—we never see a female victim murdered in real time (though a harrowing near-miss at the midpoint is plenty squirm-inducing), and the postmortem scenes focus only on Morgan and Worthington’s haunted faces.  On the Blu-ray commentary track, Mann talks about using Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock and Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout for reference points, and Texas Killing Fields captures the same sense of creeping, illusive menace.  It’s a ghost story of sorts, where Death’s psychic aftereffects are the real villain.

Do I think Texas Killing Fields is perfect? No.  A subplot featuring Jason Clarke’s opaque psychopath doesn’t impact the story as much as (I think) Mann wants it to, and I never felt like the film justifies the inclusion Jessica Chastain’s no-bull cop (though Chastain is predictably great in her ten minutes of screentime, you could edit her out without damaging the plot one whit).  But I also don’t think the film strives for greatness, and I found this modesty refreshing; the film just wants to tell an old story in a new way.  Attention must be paid, and expectations must be adjusted.

Anchor Bay’s Blu-ray is a wonderful showcase for DP Stuart Dryburgh’s widescreen cinematography; my only A/V complaint is the 7.1 Dolby TrueHD audio track can be a little fuzzy at times.  For features, we get the trailer and an extremely informative commentary track with Ami Canaan Mann and Donald Ferrarone.

Texas Killing Fields is a solid, extremely well made policier.  It didn’t deserve to get lost in the shuffle, and Anchor Bay’s Blu-ray more-than-adequately gives it a second life.

The Blu-ray streets on January 31st.  Click HERE for Amazon’s page listing.

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