Texas Killing Fields Poster

Texas Killing Fields (2011) Review

Texas Killing Fields was directed by Ami Canaan Mann (Jackie & Ryan, Morning), written by Don Ferrarone and stars Sam Worthington (Lansky, The Hunter’s Prayer), Jeffrey Dean Morgan (The Walking Dead, Heist), Chloe Grace Moretz (Suspiria, Shadow in the Cloud), Jessica Chastain (Dark Phoenix, Zero Dark Thirty), Jason Clarke (Lawless, Black Site), Sheryl Lee (Twin Peaks, Vampires) and Stephen Graham (The Irishman, Snatch). It follows a trio of detectives as they work to solve a handful of missing persons cases in the swampy bayou of Texas.

The Plot: Mann and Ferrarone have procedure in mind here, recalling the serial nature of TV shows and their usage of red herrings. Texas Killing Fields inches towards being its own creation as it goes but instead of delivering a novel plot, it sticks to familiar territory.

Detectives Souder (Worthington) and Heigh (Morgan) have just gotten done visiting the scene of a murder and dropping off neighbourhood girl Anne (Moretz) at her mother Lucie’s (Lee) house when they get a call from Pam (Chastain), a detective from one county over about a disappearance in the killing fields. This doesn’t mean much at the moment but it will later on. In the meantime, Souder and Heigh work on their case which brings them to Rule (Clarke), who’s had encounters with Anne.

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The movie has an unintegrated feel about it, there are facets to the crime element and some characters like Rhino (Graham) that don’t gel with the plot at hand for extended periods of runtime which hurts the movie’s already tangential connections. Once the 40-minute mark rolls around, Texas Killing Fields links all three detectives by way of the body found in the killing fields and the plot gains cohesion as the officers pool their efforts on finding the killer. From there, they narrow their suspects and once they get too close to one of them, Anne is kidnapped and the killer gets bold, forcing the officers into the fields to stop the next murder before it happens.

When Texas Killing Fields makes sense its plot is decent, occupying its characters with a familiar story that builds and ends far better than it starts. When it doesn’t make sense, the writing doesn’t seem to be the culprit, it’s the edit.

The Characters: Ferrarone includes a lot of characters to watch in Texas Killing Fields and just enough in the way of character to differentiate them from other potboilers. It’s Mann’s direction of the quiet scenes and the actors that do the heavy lifting alongside a few exchanges between them that Ferrarone could’ve used more of that elevate the characters here.

Souder is the most hardened of the bunch, trying to stick to doing his job and nothing more by avoiding attachment to any one of the cases he takes on. Every time someone confronts him about the way he carries himself or how stringent he is about not getting involved in the affairs of other counties, he doesn’t take it well, which isn’t explained further but the implications are clear enough. He’s pushed his now ex-wife Pam away with his drinking and loner attitude as most other situations result in his aggressively rigid methods.

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Heigh is almost the opposite, frequently getting pulled into other investigations outside his jurisdiction if it means he can help solve a case in any way. There’s a brief discussion about his time in New York that points towards why he decided to come to Texas but it’s cut short in the edit. Still, it’s clear that he’s the idealist of the three detectives, praying for each victim and expecting more positive results than negative, which gives him and Souder a point of contention. Pam is somewhere in between, showing the devotion to her cases that Heigh does with the aggression that Souder has. She doesn’t get much but she works well as a gap bridger between her male counterparts.

It’s the side characters that struggle in Texas Killing Fields. Whether that comes from something lacking in the script or multiple things left on the cutting room floor is hard to pinpoint, but Anne, Lucie, Rule, and an unnamed contact that Heigh uses for cellphone pinging are left with little to do. Anne lives in a broken home, is frequently kicked out by Lucie and supervised by Heigh or Rhino and has dreams of leaving, but that’s as far as it goes for any of those aforementioned characters.

Souder, Heigh, and Pam are good leads made better by the actors portraying them. Their interactions with each other and the secondary characters are good too but the choppiness of the movie leaves something missing.

The Crime: What works surprisingly well in Texas Killing Fields is the criminal investigation and the loose ends it leaves. In spite of or because of the final cut is unknown, the fact that the proceedings recover after a rocky start is good enough.

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Officers Souder and Heigh get a lot of stuff thrown their way. From locations to nicknames to vague descriptions, they’re constantly sifting through threads to get anywhere in their murder case. They return to the same neighbourhood a few times, managing to get more out of the occupants the more they press. Once one of them comes in for questioning, Souder gets frustrated and loses his cool, setting the pair back a step until Souder goes back again. The repetition is engaging and does a good job at showing the annoyances the officers face without ever becoming too repetitive to entertain.

Having those characters from that neighbourhood and to many others offering clues means that some of them don’t go anywhere. Not everything comes back into play but that makes sense; some of the details aren’t essential and act as atmospherics rather than leads worth following.

While all of that is an interesting decision to make and works pretty well, a hindrance that comes from this focus on giving the audience so many details is the amount that Texas Killing Fields insists on giving. Most of the leads, clues, and suspects are shown or told within the same half-hour span, which, in a 105-minute movie, isn’t spaced out as it should be, but kind of works in spite of itself by putting the audience in the shoes of the detectives.

It’s once the red herring exits the movie that Texas Killing Fields gets sloppy again. The culprit doesn’t get many scenes to themselves after the first act, leaving little to understand about who they are and why they’re doing what they’re doing. Since the movie deals with teenage girls being assaulted, kidnapped, and killed, it may be for the better since the movie could’ve slid right into exploitation territory, but including a couple more scenes with the killer/attempted(?) rapist would’ve been additive.

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Mann’s crime in her crime movie shouldn’t work as well as it does. That’s not to say it’s great as it has a rough time connecting the copious dots it creates, but it does have a lot to work through that provides an entertaining sit down and an energizing conclusion.

The Technics: Mann’s direction doesn’t quite match the quality of her father’s, but that’s not to say that she lacks style or the ability to spin a watchable yarn. The way she uses the setting to establish a mood is perfunctory but polished. Dickon Hinchliffe’s (Locke, Leave No Trace) score does as much world-building as Mann does, with the admittedly stereotypical acoustic bass and guitar selling the sparseness of the setting with his own sparing usage of both instruments.

I’m confident in claiming that something happened to this movie behind the scenes, as the editing does a huge disservice to Texas Killing Fields. Scenes don’t necessarily follow one another and there are some jarring transitions and events in the first 35 minutes, with some characters left nameless and part of Heigh’s backstory relegated to a throwaway line; the studio or editor Cindy Mollo (The Book of Eli, Broken City) had to have done something.

Texas Killing Fields is a reasonably entertaining, well-acted and atmospheric potboiler. The crime is handled realistically and the refusal to use everything that comes up is interesting, but something went wrong after the fact as the movie struggles with continuity and cohesion.

Texas Killing Fields is available on Digital platforms. And if you’re looking for something to watch with it, FilmTagger has some ideas.

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