This sophomore feature by Michael Mann’s daughter, Ami Canaan Mann, isn’t unlike the innumerable police procedurals that flood the network airwaves nowadays. To be sure, it sports an unusual location, and is structurally more chaotic than most of them. But otherwise it treads fairly familiar ground, and whether the differences are enough to merit its big-screen status—or plunking down the cost of a ticket—is debatable indeed.
The focus of Donald F. Ferrarone’s script is on two cops, partners in Texas City, a small city in the south of the state near a desolate area notorious for being a site where the bodies of murder victims have been dumped. One of them is Brian Heigh (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a transplanted New Yorker and devout Catholic who, along with his wife Gwen (Annabeth Gish) and kids, takes a special interest in troubled children. His partner is brash young Mike Souder (Sam Worthington), a local recently—and unhappily—divorced from Pam Stall (Jessica Chastain, who seems to be in just about every movie released nowadays), a cop in a neighboring town.
The plot revolves around several matters that prove to be interconnected. One is the brutal murder of a prostitute in Texas City. Another is the disappearance of a young woman in Pam’s bailiwick and her request for Brian’s help—something that irks the still-simmering Mike. Then there’s the issue of Ann Sliger (Chloe Grace Moretz), a disheveled teen whose mother Lucie (Sheryl Lee), an alcoholic and drug addict, is hardly the best influence. Brian takes an interest in the kid, whose unhappy life in her mom’s dingy hovel isn’t improved by the presence of her gangly, strung-out uncle and his intense, quietly sinister pal Rhino (Stephen Graham).
Brian and Mike’s investigation of the prostitute’s murder leads them to a pimp named Levone (Jon Eyez) and his colleague in crime Rule (Jason Clarke), a tattooed brute who coasts around in a souped-up car offering young girls rides. There are also side trips involving a disembodied arm found by some local toughs, a blood-stained car abandoned in a garage and a dangerous trek through the killing fields in search of victims, as well as a splashy, melodramatic denouement in which the villains—or some of them—get their just deserts. But though most of the questions are answered, it’s in a shambling, elliptical way, and there are certainly loose ends at the close (a huge one involving a particularly nasty character). The mystique of the desolate wilderness that gives the film its title, moreover, is certainly dissipated in the process.
Still, the picture has strengths. Mann stages some effective action scenes, including a car chase, and along with cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh creates a moody ambiance that fuels the feeling that Texas City is a dangerous, disturbing place. But it fails in matters of characterization—though the cast is a strong one, the roles they’ve been handed mostly consist of tried-and-true cliches that reek more of crime novels and episodic television. Morgan comes across as rather dour and Worthington all surface good-ol’-boyness, but in her small part Chastain exudes efficiency, both Clarke and Graham are genuinely menacing (though not much more), and Lee is convincing enough in her one-note role. Moretz is more successful in adding some nuance to young, troubled Ann.
But ultimately “Texas Killing Fields” just uses a spooky atmosphere and fractured style to disguise the fact that it’s actually covering quite familiar territory.