Ami Canaan Mann’s (daughter of Michael Mann) debut film Texas Killing Fields (2011) is a run-of-the-mill police procedural, which really has no place this year’s Venice Film Festival. Detectives Souder (Sam Worthington) and Heigh (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) are investigating a series of abductions and murders of young women. The older detective is gripped by an almost religious sense of mission whereas Souder for all his in-your-face attitude, fights shy of drifting out of their jurisdiction.
This latter point is particularly problematic as the Texas Killing Fields – the dumping ground where most the bodies are found – are in his ex-wife’s jurisdiction. Jessica Chastain plays the role of the feisty police officer with verve in her second outing at VFF 2011 – she also played half the title role in Al Pacino’s wonderfully entertaining documentary Wilde Salome (2011).
As well as pursuing their cases, the detectives also become increasingly involved in the life of Anne Slinger (Chloe Moretz) – a young girl from a deprived and possibly abusive family. The success of the investigation and Anne’s fate increasingly appear to be linked, as she wanders away from home when her intoxicated mother has her new boyfriend round to stay.
Texas Killing Fields’ cast performances are all strong, particularly Sam Worthington, who seems to relish playing something other than a glorified action-figure. He is a blandly handsome actor – it is no surprise that he lost the role of 007 to the edgier Daniel Craig – but as the local boy who channels his own demons into his work, he does some sterling work and is rewarded with some of the best lines of the piece. Jeffrey Dean Morgan adds a soulful gravitas to the piece and the UK’s own Stephen Graham is a convincingly-creepy villain.
Unfortunately, the ordinariness of the film’s narrative and a strong sense of déjà vu render the process academic. Based on a true story written by ex-DEA law officer Don Ferrarone, Texas Killing Fields proves the dictum that life is full of clichés, correct. The detectives are all working stiffs getting on with their jobs, but their investigation lacks drive and urgency – just as their interrelationships lack convincing warmth. There’s the standard car-chase, foot-chase, a fist-fight and some poking around at night with torches, but it all serves simply to remind you of other films which have done the same thing better.
As a debut feature, Texas Killing Fields is entirely competent (except for a couple of straight-forward continuity errors), yet it is likely that Ami Canaan Mann will suffer from being compared to her father. The premiere of the film did little to prevent this, with father Michael appearing at the press conference in his role as the film’s producer.
Strangely, for a film that its title from a location – a strip of wasteland running along the I-45 where over fifty bodies have been dumped since the late sixties – Texas Killing Fields evokes very little sense of place. The film’s characters constantly tell you how bad the Killing Fields are (one technician refers to them as infected), but this simply doesn’t come over; they just look like ordinary, barren fields.
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