If you knew nothing about filmmaker Ami Canaan Mann going into Texas Killing Fields, her second feature directorial effort, you’d immediately pinpoint Michael Mann as a major influence. After all, the film is an atmospheric crime story rendered with rich cinematography and featuring characters with muddled motives.
That the two are actually father-daughter hardly lessens the impact of the younger Mann’s work in creating this assured, moody police procedural. With a memorable Jeffrey Dean Morgan performance at its center, Texas Killing Fields boasts a human dimension that enhances the impact of its strong noir craft.
The blackness engulfing the picture’s Texas City setting mirrors the tormented souls of detectives Brian Heigh (Morgan), a New York transplant, and hotheaded local boy Mike Sounder (Sam Worthington). The men are investigating a string of unsolved murders that have culminated in the bodies of teenage female victims being found in an oil field outside of town, which the locals have nicknamed the “killing fields.”
As the specter of these murders hangs over all, the town has been immersed in a sort of sinister dread. Brian and Mike push back against the darkness any way they can, delving full-throttle into their police work, shaking down suspicious characters and protecting young Anne Sliger (Chloe Grace Moretz) from her troubled home. Based on the strange men that stare at her and approach her, as well as the ethereal way Mann’s tracking shots capture the lonely girl, it’s apparent that she might be the mysterious killer’s next target.
Within the investigatory framework, Mann evokes the existential plight of detectives racked with guilt and an overall sense of helplessness. Morgan brings an intensity of feeling to his work as Brian, a sense of true dedication mixed with a charming regular-guy quality and the tangible, pervasive fear that he can’t stop the carnage. Worthington can’t quite match him, but he handles the obsessed trigger-happy thing well enough.
In grays and browns, on rainy nights and bleak days, the filmmaker portrays a community under siege. Vultures soar over the killing fields, the characters delve straight into the muck and an ever-encroaching anxiety adds urgency to the investigation. The film isn’t quite of Zodiac’s caliber, but it offers a similar portrait of police officers meticulously struggling with a faceless deadly enemy, while simultaneously stressing the ramifications of life under a constant terror threat.
Mann crafts several strong set pieces, including a lengthy shootout and a genuinely gripping home invasion. She has an eye for sharp, subtly disorienting mobile camerawork that ably shapes the downtrodden look and feel of the morose setting and its inhabitants.
Texas Killing Fields, which also stars the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain, won’t win any feel good movie of the year awards, but it’s an accomplished piece of work that introduces another Mann to watch on the cinematic scene.
The Upside: This is a moody, well-crafted procedural thriller.
The Downside: The film is drained of energy and plausibility by the conclusion. The killer is extremely obvious.
On the Side: Danny Boyle was originally attached to the material, but he thought it was too dark to ever be made, according to Slash Film.