Texas Killing Fields, newly released on Blu-ray, ostensibly is a crime film inspired by true events. In reality, the story writer Don Ferrarone tells in the movie holds only a passing connection to what actually happened. Directed by Ami Canaan Mann and co-produced by her dad, Michael Mann, the film has a lofty pedigree, but does it deliver a satisfying crime story?
The true events that inspired Texas Killing Fields boil down to a series of murdered women whose bodies were dropped in a field in League City, Texas. The field was large, remote, and tangled with weeds and rough terrain, making it a convenient dumping ground. Due to the number of victims left in the fields and the time span of the actual killings, it is likely that a single killer did not murder all the women left there and that the area served multiple unrelated criminals. The movie takes the surface facts and creates an entirely fictionalized narrative about local authorities working to track down a single killer or pair of killers responsible for all the deaths tied to the fields.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays Brian Heigh, a New York cop who has moved to Texas where he now works as a homicide detective. His partner is Mike Souder (Sam Worthington), younger, brasher, and at odds with his ex-wife Pam Stall (Jessica Chastain), who runs the police department in the neighboring town. Pam calls on veteran Brian for assistance after a girl disappears, likely a victim in the so-called Killing Fields. Mike discourages getting involved in a case outside their jurisdiction, mostly because he does not relish the notion of rubbing elbows with his ex-wife. Of course, the detective duo end up wading hip-deep into the case and becoming compelled to solve it after the killer starts calling and taunting them with a cell phone that belonged to one of the victims.
While looking into the serial killings, Brian also is trying to help troubled local girl Ann (Chloe Grace Moretz). Ann’s mom Lucie (Sheryl Lee) has a string of bad news boyfriends and insists that Ann stay away from the house whenever they are visiting, forcing the girl to break the terms of her juvie court ordered curfew. Brian divides his time between trying to keep Ann out of trouble and trying to find the killer, who has managed to stay at large, despite a few close calls at apprehension.
Texas Killing Fields is a strange movie in that it has a lot of great components and even has a basic premise that should be intriguing, but it never gets going enough to engage the audience. Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Chloe Grace Moretz, and Jessica Chastain all give believable performances, and all three are actors who consistently deliver the goods from project to project. The problem here is that their characters lack depth at the script level, and the movie holds the viewer at arm’s length rather than making us want to care about these people. Sam Worthington might have performed well, but it’s hard to tell when his version of a Texas accent results in a lot of incomprehensible mumbles with the occasional “a’ight.”
Also at fault are the movie’s inconsistent and often confusing pacing and focus. While the detectives investigate the murders, there is a parallel and tangentially related case involving pimps in the Texas town. Scenes regularly jump between the characters involved in each case without much reason or context. Most of the secondary characters behave in bizarrely illogical ways that further disengage the viewer, and several of the scenes that should be emotionally powerful end up being emotionless messes. When the movie sticks with a single story thread for more than a few minutes, the result tends to be a retread of a vanilla plot from any familiar TV police procedural. There’s the sense that everything is building toward a grand climax that will tie the various stories together in a satisfying way, but that proves not to be the case.
The movie looks and sounds good on Blu-ray, bringing strong blacks and dark colors into the film’s many nighttime scenes. The only bonus features included are the movie trailer and an audio commentary featuring director Ami Canaan Mann and writer Donald Ferrarone. Texas Killing Fields is a puzzle made up of bits that should come together to create a fascinating image, but the pieces just never fit. The uneven script is the primary culprit, although a few questionable directorial decisions also confuse the issues. It’s not a terrible movie, and it’s even worth a watch for fans of Morgan’s work. The tragedy is that the writing and pacing manage to make a movie about brutal serial killings bland and uninspired.