Is there a cinematic promise more dubious than a film about a serial killer opening with the words “based on a true story”? If that claim is to be taken seriously then one can’t help but wonder why most of these films—each based on a theoretically differing true story—are nearly identical to one another even down to the characterizations of the folks on both sides of the law. There’s the pervy nerd who’s either a red herring or a killer, the cop who’s a bitter alcoholic with battered principles complimented by his partner who’s usually a family man with unyielding principles, as well as at least two or three promiscuous women mixed in for obligatory sexual enticement. Perhaps “based on films based on true stories” would be more accurate; certainly the label would better suit Texas Killing Fields.
The film has a great title and few performances that are as good as they can be under the circumstances, but this is the worst kind of thriller: one that aspires to transcend the exploitative muck of a genre film when a simple, unpretentious genre film would’ve probably been more serviceable and more honest. When women are tormented in, say, one of Brian De Palma’s sexy, playful thrillers, the satire of genre conventions merged with the director’s clear empathy to forge a unique sensibility that truly transcended the roots of the traditional horror picture. But in the age of the David Fincher imitator, serial-killer movies, which are basically horror movies with delusions of seriousness anyway, filmmakers often try to transcend their films’ trashy roots with heavy, humorless, and hopelessly portentous staging that’s meant as a form of realism. But usually these films offer realism to the ridiculously nth degree, which means the unpleasantness of the violence (which is the chief concern anyway) is amplified while the exploitation, almost always of women, and the stock characterizations remain unquestioned.
Texas Killing Fields, to paraphrase Pauline Kael, is so determined to be great it isn’t even good. It’s a series of the usual self-conscious directorial ticks in search of a movie. There are superfluous tracking shots galore, and there may not be one moment in the entire film that isn’t overlong and simultaneously over- or under-lit. Director Ami Canaan Mann might have a bad case of the Film Debuts in that she’s making her first film from weak material that only deteriorates from her showboating quest for art. If Texas Killing Fields was briskly staged and told in a more matter-of-fact fashion, it wouldn’t still wouldn’t be much—but it might work. Mann’s rigid horror-noir expressionism doesn’t allow for that possibility though, it numbs everything, which only heightens the obviousness of the clichés and the nonsense.
After a few camera pirouettes, the story properly opens on the murder site of a pretty young woman that’s being investigated by two detectives of traditionally delineated sensibility: local small-town Texan Mike Souder (Sam Worthington, trying as hard as Mann to make this work) and New York transplant Brian Heigh (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, in a warm, graceful performance). Their personalities are quickly established by their method of note-taking: Mike is the bad cop who’s an entitled hothead, while Brian is the good cop who’s a compassionate, empathetic father bear. Another dead woman is soon discovered in a neighboring county, and so the detectives, joined by Souder’s feisty ex-wife, Detective Pam Stall (Jessica Chastain), are soon on the hunt for a serial killer who dumps many of his victims in the titular, and jurisdictionally hazy, marsh.
There’s also a queasy subplot that so awkwardly fits into the film as to inadvertently telegraph much of what follows. Anne (an eerily good Chloë Grace Moretz), a girl on the uncomfortable cusp of womanhood, is often forced to stroll the night streets alone so that her mother (Sheryl Lee) may have the house to entertain a number of the sketchier local guys. Brian occasionally gives Anne a ride and lets her eat dinner with his family before advising her to call him if anything should happen. Why Brian doesn’t take more decisive action to save a girl in a clearly abusive domestic situation is one of the film’s many unintentional mysteries. (But the answer is obvious and faintly offensive, as saving Anne from her family early on would deny Mann the opportunity to goose her story with several sexually suggestive child-in-peril bits.)
The detectives’ open resignation to Anne’s life in a ramshackle whorehouse is just one of the film’s odd dissonances. Texas Killing Fields often plays like a longer work that might have been brutally truncated. Scenes often dangle unfulfilled and sometimes seem to arrive in no particular order, and there’s one subplot involving an obvious red herring that’s jarringly unresolved. The film has a few admittedly scary moments, but they aren’t enough to redeem the jumble of ugly narrative clichés and dead ends that have been offered up with distracting film-school devices. Texas Killing Fields is almost literally all dressed up with nowhere to go.
The image is awfully soft for a DVD much less a Blu-ray. The night sequences, in particular, are occasionally so inky as to cause problems discerning what, precisely, may be going on. More care has been taken with the sound mix. The dialogue and sound effects are in proper synch as far I could tell (as I said, you sometimes can’t see anything anyway) and the score has the intended surround-sound immersion. A thoroughly mediocre presentation.
The commentary by director Ami Canaan Mann and writer Donald F. Ferrarone is earnest and generally entertaining. Mann shares the thinking behind a number of the shots as well as conversations she had with the actors while Ferrarone discusses the details that he parsed out of the real story for his screenplay. It appears that Mann and Ferrarone were after much more of a movie than they actually realized, which lends their discussion poignancy if you feel as I do about Texas Killing Fields. The film’s trailer is also included.
Texas Killing Fields is just another dull, morally mixed-up serial-killer movie.