Friday, 11 November 2011

Texas Killing Fields (2011)

The ground is sour.

Image: Entertainment Films

Texas City detectives Brian Heigh (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Mike Souder (Sam Worthington) find themselves investigating a series of grisly murders which end up in the Killing Fields, a notorious stretch of bayous. 

It feels like it’s been a while since we’ve had a decent police procedural movie. Texas Killing Fields is directed by Ami Canaan Mann, whose father Michael has given us some of the best examples of the genre with films like Heat and Manhunter. If Ms. Mann’s feature debut doesn’t reach the heights of her father’s best work it’s no fault of the director, rather a patchy script. 

After a solid start the film becomes increasingly incoherent, jumping from one storyline to the next and leaving the audience to fill in the gaps for themselves and generally giving the impression that scenes are missing. It’s just as well that Mann shows that she has talent to spare behind the camera as she conjures up a highly impressive atmosphere. The film may be set in Texas City but the only metropolitan lights we see are in the distance and out of focus. The oppressive heat is broken only by torrential rain that washes any traces of clues from the crime scenes. Then there are the Fields themselves. Mann makes the most of the amazing location, with its skeletal blasted trees and oozing swamps. There’s also some nicely placed Gothic horror as the locals recoil from the idea of having anything to do with those bayous, referring to the ground as poisoned.   

The central pairing of Morgan (Watchmen, The Resident) and Worthington (Avatar, Clash of the Titans) works well. Morgan plays the religious family man who’s relocated from New York and Worthington plays the hot-tempered local who’s divorced from Pam Stall (Jessica Chastain), a detective from the next county. It’s easy to predict which of them will end up going to the edge, but it’s good to see Morgan in a lead role and Worthington works better here than he has in any of his recent films. Chastain (Tree of Life) doesn’t have much to do but she convinces as a tough cop, while Stephen Graham (Boardwalk Empire, This Is England), Jason Clarke (Public Enemies), and Sheryl Lee (Twin Peaks) do decent work in underdeveloped roles as possible suspects.

One of the better subplots pairs Morgan with excellent young actor ChloĆ« Grace Moretz (Kick Ass, Let Me In) as a young girl who Brian looks out for. Moretz gives another impressive performance as her character drifts through the film and into trouble. But her storyline also suffers from a script that can’t decide where to focus. The film is certainly entertaining, even gripping in places, and it’s very well directed and well acted. Some scenes, such as a horrifyingly slow-build discovery of an intruder, are superb. It’s just a shame that this solid, enjoyable detective movie could have been excellent with a better screenplay.

Verdict: It’s highly watchable throughout, has some nice twists on genre staples, and Mann is a director to watch. But it needed a more focused script.



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