Texas Killing Fields: Has the pedigree, but gets lost in the hills

Texas Killing Fields – 2011

Directed by  Ami Caanan Mann
Starring Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Sam Worthington, Chloe Grace Moretz, Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, James Hebert, Stephen Graham
Written by Don Farrarone


In watching the trailer, one gets the brooding sense of foreboding that was present in Fincher’s classic, Zodiac.  Investigators (Worthington, Morgan and Chastain) looking seriously concerned, waif like girl (Moretz) looking every bit the resourceful victim, and bad guys (Clarke, Hebert and Graham) looking wild, pathetic and sinister.  After viewing it a little over a year ago, I became quite interested in watching the film.  Curiously, it never became available in my area.  Starting on 3 screens, it eventually grew to 10.  So, DVD is was.  There is, however, a sense of dread that develops within the first 15 minutes of the film.  This sense, reads to the mind’s eye as”I think I know why this didn’t get a wide release.”

Don't make me shoot...please.

The cast of Texas Killing Fields reads like a list of my favorite recent actors.  Jessica Chastain is coming off a fantastic year that has seen her in 3 roles (Tree of Life, Take Shelter and The Debt) that could have netted her an Oscar nomination, and another one (The Help) that did.  Jeffrey Dean Morgan has been a good part of great movies (The Watchmen), the best part of a decent movie (The Losers) and unjustly disappear in a horrible movie (Jonah Hex).  Sam Worthington has been a valid presence in one blockbuster after another (Terminator Salvation, Clash of the Titans, Avatar) as well as a dramatically deft portrayal with Chastain in The Debt.  Most intriguing of the group is Moretz, who at an early age has amassed acting credentials (Kick-Ass, Let Me In) superior to many twice her age.

Chastain is an extraordinary actress when dealing from a position of weakness.  As Det. Pam Stall, she is the tough ex-wife of Worthington’s Det. Sounder.  We find that playing a tough chick is not so easy for her.  There is a sense of bluster without any backbone.  I kept waiting for her to close her eyes while shooting her gun.

Worthington’s Sounder and Morgan’s Det. Heigh have a hard time figuring out which one is the smart one and who is the hard ass.  The result is having neither look all that intelligent, or all that sure of themselves.  Both of their performances have good moments, but there are an equal number of confusing messages sent.  There is one scene, when they are interrogating an assault victim with her daughter.  The scene had a natural tension of its own, but then, in the midst of it, a phone call from one of the perpetrators which causes the detectives to be totally sidetracked, leaving her and any information she might have,  to her own devices.

Clarke as the menacing Rule
Graham's Rhino is anything but a normal guy

Perhaps the best performance, and most woefully underused, is that of Moretz.  She has the ability to express extreme intelligence, insecurity and resolve.  Her perspective is the most uniquely haunting of the film, when you see predators like Clarke’s Rule and Graham’s Rhino size her up with their eyes.

The biggest sin of The Texas Killing Fields is the lack of a comprehensive structure.  The have two entirely menacing, yet different antagonists, and they fail to use either of them to their potential.  As Rhino, Graham has the look of one who just hangs around crowds, picking off the small and the weak as they stray away from the pack.  Clarke has the look of barely contained rage, such that he might go right into the middle of the pack, tearing through the biggest animals all the way in.  They are used effectively at times, but neither’s performance is rewarded with the great resolution one might expect from a better director.

One has to lay the majority of the blame for the failure of this film on its director, Mann.  She appears to have a limited grasp on what it takes to hold one’s attention to the screen, much less the characters upon it.  Somewhere in here is a good movie.  Even with a father like Michael Mann, sometimes you need to fall flat to get up, learn from your mistakes, and try again.

(** out of *****)

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