Review: ‘Texas Killing Fields’

will_leitch
The Projector

1. An underappreciated aspect of Michael Mann's films is how sincere they are. His icy, removed, groove-on-manliness-and-violence vibe can distract from a consistent feel from each film that he is deeply invested in what happens to his characters. Most of the time this works, particularly in "The Insider," in which every scene is as intense and frightening as a shootout; sometimes, like with every female character in "Heat," this can be awkward and klutzy. But as much as he thinks about plot -- and boy, does he; Mann plots are like meticulous, over-detailed plans for putting together an Ikea dresser -- he cares about the people just as much, sometimes to his detriment. People get caught up in his inimitable style, and understandably so, but Mann, deep down, probably considers himself a writer first.

2. It's not fair to compare "Texas Killing Fields" -- directed by Mann's daughter, Ami Canaan Mann -- to anything Mann's done; the man is one of the most accomplished directors on earth, and his daughter is just cutting her teeth on her first film. But the movie begs for the comparison, taking the gritty crime elements and minimalist-but-vast scope that's Mann's signature and stripping it down even more. We're supposed to take cues from Mann's films -- Canaan Mann has worked on her father's film and studied under him -- and feel if not the same, at least respond to the same stimuli. But heavens, Mann would never be nearly this slack. "Texas Killing Fields" is a limp, confusing and sloppy would-be thriller that feels like it was left in the dryer too long. And it kinda looks ugly, too.

3. The film doesn't really go anywhere or establish any narrative sense, which is problem, since it's ostensibly a police procedural. Two Texas cops (Jeffrey Dean Morgan and, sigh, Sam Worthington) are investigating the death of a teenage girl while also keeping an eye on a particularly vulnerable one (Chloe Grace Moretz) and her addict mother (Sheryl Lee, in a reasonable impersonation of what Laura Palmer might have turned into when she got old). They roam around and question various locals of a small Texas town (actually shot in Louisiana, and this is the type of movie in which that makes a difference) to find what appears to be a serial killer. I'm pretty sure that's the story; it's all sort of vague, and not in mysterious, hazy type of way. It feels like whole sections of the film have been dropped, and occasionally characters will change their whole personalities from scene to scene, in order to move an incomprehensible plot around. I really don't understand half of what happens in "Texas Killing Fields," and I promise, I was paying as close attention as possible. Canaan Mann is so intoxicated with shots of a Texas (actually Louisiana) wasteland -- the "Fields" of the title are the dumping grounds for the serial killer, but the film never makes them into a palpable character of their own -- to explicitly make clear what's going on.

4. Thus, Morgan's character is a transplanted New York City cop, though the movie never explains how he got to this sleepy Texas (actually Louisiana) town. And Worthington's character is the ex-husband of a police office from a nearby town (Jessica Chastain, barely in the movie at all), though the movie doesn't explain their relationship or do much with it. The film just hasn't thought about these characters all that much; they're just sort of roaming around, going through the motions to catch a serial killer whose identity the audience kind of suspects five minutes into the film. It's a collection of soggy scenes that don't add up to anything. At one point, Morgan just starts pounding on some guy in a bar, and for the life of me, I had no idea why.

5. Canaan Mann doesn't get much help from her cast. Morgan's fine, in a going-through-the-motions type of way. But, seriously, something's gonna have to be done about Worthington. Can we stop it, please? This is Worthington's third independent movie of the year -- along with "The Debt" and "Last Night" -- and he's been an empty stiff in all three of them. Dude, it's nice that you're trying, but go get back in your "Clash of the Titans" movies and leave the rest of us alone. (At least neither of those two movies asked him to do a Texan accent. Yikes.) Even Chastain, who is terrific in everything, can't break through with a convincing character; when you keep forgetting that Jessica Chastain is in a movie, you're watching a movie that is wasting valuable resources. "Texas Killing Fields" maybe could have been something, at some point, but it has no idea what it's doing and no idea how to do it, anyway. Mann will compliment his daughter on her movie, as he should as a father, but deep down he'll know how much of a mess it is. Maybe he'll try to remake it someday.

Grade: D+