There’s a stretch of swampland off the I-45 about 30 minutes south of Houston called the Killing Fields. Since 1969, nearly sixty bodies have been found there, mainly young women, prostitutes and even school children. In her directorial debut, “Texas Killing Fields”’ Ami Canaan Mann chronicles the real-life search for the killer led by a pair of mismatched cops intent on seeing justice served.
Mike Souder (Sam Worthington) is a local boy from the town of Texas City. Brian Heigh (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is his partner, a recent transplant from New York. You might expect a study on rural versus city sensibilities, but Mann is too smart for that. The main difference between these two comes down to character.
The investigation leads them to a pimp and his friend, a psychopath who the local girls know to avoid. One of his targets is a wise-beyond-her-years teen, Little Anne Sliger (Chloe Grace Moretz), who lives with her alcoholic mother and her new boyfriend. As she becomes inextricably tied up in their lives, Souder and Heigh draw closer to the killer.
Inevitably Little Anne is snatched and a hunt through the swamp turns up enough evidence to trap the killer right there in the wilderness. In a surprising twist, Little Anne is saved and the murderers are brought to justice, but they aren’t who you think they are.
Sam Worthington transitions easily from the fantasy worlds of “Avatar” and “Clash of the Titans” to “Texas Killing Fields.” He simmers with frustration as a confident cop flummoxed by a case he cannot solve. Worthington shows audiences he is more than just a marquis name, delivering a grounded performance that complements the ensemble but never overwhelms it.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays a calm, seasoned veteran who, though he’s a long way from New York, effortlessly navigates his way through cowboy country. He is smart and bedraggled but inexorably committed to his cause.
Chloe Grace Moretz has been carving an enviable career since her breakout in last year’s “Kick Ass” followed by the critically-acclaimed “Let Me In.” She will next be seen in Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” followed by Tim Burton’s “Dark Shadows” next year. Here, she underplays to enormous effect. She has barely any lines but conveys a level of dignity and strength that you can’t help rooting for in the face of hopeless conditions.
Jessica Chastain, who plays Souder’s ex-wife, Detective Pam, has had a breakout year with “The Tree of Life” and last summer’s sleeper hit, “The Help.” Here, she gallantly elevates an underwritten role.
Director Ami Canaan Mann delivers a solid freshman effort, eliciting strong naturalistic performances from a top-notch cast. Although “Texas Killing Fields” is a script-driven movie, Mann never strays from the principles of good cinema.
Her shots of the swamp—a dead forest flooded by rising waterlines—feature white, skeletal trees pressed against dark and moody skies. As Heigh places a plastic tarp over a victim, Mann pauses for a haunting moment as the music rises.
In fact, there is a haunting quality throughout “Texas Killing Fields” that comes through Mann’s firm grip of the medium, her use of music, sound and shot selection. No doubt it helps that her father (and producer of the movie) is Michael Mann who specializes in the crime genre.
Daughter Ami cut her teeth on her father’s sets and it shows. Here, she takes a standard police procedural and, with an exceptional cast and authentic locations, elevates it beyond the quotidian.
Despite its lethargic pacing, “Texas Killing Fields” is engaging throughout. Mann is smart enough to rely not just on the story and the stakes to seize her audience, but pulls you in with characters and performance.
*** (out of four)