Texas Killing Fields may be the most lethargic serial-killer thriller of the decade. Shot in Louisiana but set in Texas, it has a sweaty deep-South sluggishness that even a high-firepower car chase and a final-act shootout can’t overcome.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan is troubled former New York cop Brian Heigh, still smarting over an unsuccessful but unspecified murder investigation he couldn’t crack there. Sam Worthington is his mumbling good ol’ boy partner Mike Souder, a Texas City local. Mike wants to focus their attention and resources on a single homicide that took place within the Texas City limits. Brian believes the murder is connected to dozens of others in the surrounding vicinity, and argues that they should cast a wider net.
Complicating matters is the fact that Sam’s ex-wife and fellow detective Pam Stall (Jessica Chastain, in no-nonsense tough-broad mode) works in one of those other jurisdictions and wants help with her investigation. Mike says no, but Brian agrees to assist her on the down-low.
Chastain and Worthington appeared together earlier this year in the excellent mystery thriller The Debt. Chastain’s small role here doesn’t give the two much shared screen time, but in those few moments they are believably tentative as awkward exes who still have a certain spark.
Chloë Grace Moretz (Hit-Girl in last year’s Kick-Ass) is Anne Sliger, the emotionally abused teen daughter of loose-morals Lucie Sliger (Sheryl Lee). Brian takes a fatherly interest in the neglected street-wandering urchin. Her mother’s special friend, identified only as Rhino (Stephen Graham), is a stonefaced weirdo who deserves to be locked up based on his appearance alone.
A distracting side plot about a tattooed redneck badass named Rule (Jason Clarke) never quite meshes with the rest of the movie. That’s too bad, because Rule is so amorally obnoxious he has psycho star quality.
First-time director Ami Canaan Mann, daughter of director Michael Mann (who serves as producer here), seems more interested in establishing a humid atmosphere of frustrated anxiety than in telling an easy-to-follow story. Certain elements of writer Don Ferrarone’s screenplay never quite come together, which seems more like narrative carelessness than the fickleness of justice-denied fate.
The movie’s sets and locations look great, including a dilapidated two-story shack where Lucie plies her trade; a weedy trailer park with a secret in a corrugated metal shed; and an intimidating no-man’s-land marsh populated with gray driftwood-dry trees. The “inspired by true events” story has occasional moments of genuine creepiness, such as when a murder victim is found with her hands cut off, or when it is explained that a bayou has been “infected” with evil ever since native Americans who were forced to live there turned to cannibalism. Also, a few ominous pronouncements hint at how much more disturbing the movie could have been if it weren’t so murky and listless. “This place ain’t nothin’ but chaos,” Mike says at one point. “Your god don’t come round here. You don’t know where you are.”
Meandering and moody, Texas Killing Fields is worth a look — but be warned that it is more sleepy than suspenseful.
[Rating: 3 stars]