Pedigreed director’s inexperience shows

Pedigreed director’s inexperience shows

‘Texas Killing Fields’

Starring: Sam Worthington, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jessica Chastain

Director: Ami Canaan Mann

Rated: R

This is not the first movie to have its premiere eerily coincide with the real events that inspired it. Just weeks before this reached theaters, there was a break in solving some of the murders associated with what is now infamously referred to as the Texas killing fields between Galveston and Houston. During that same week, “60 Minutes” did a piece on the ongoing mysteries of this remote bayou area where it is estimated more than one serial killer has dumped victims over period of time that stretches back almost 40 years.

The thought of this gristly graveyard give me the creeps, probably because it’s relatively close by and there are so many unsolved cases and secrets buried in that desolate, unholy place. It was only a matter of time before someone made a movie about it, and now they have. If the director’s last name looks familiar, Ami Canaan Mann is the daughter of Michael Mann, a veteran filmmaker with a signature style his daughter draws on for her first feature.

In fact, this movie is long on style and short on the kind of content that could have made it much more compelling. There are some suspenseful and tense parts, but the film suffers from a lot of expositional mistakes that inexperienced directors tend to make like truncated scenes that lack transition. To make up for what is lacking, there are endless shots of deserted bayous filmed in moody half shadow to remind us of what could be lurking in the high reeds and murky shallow waters, while shots of hovering vultures obviously portend gruesome discoveries — all filmed in and around New Orleans and surrounding parishes substituting for East Texas locales.

Two Texas City cops trying to unravel the mystery are Mike and Brian, played by Sam Worthington and Jeffrey Dean Morgan. Mike (Worthington) is a native with firm ideas about jurisdiction (one of the initial real problems that held up solving these cases). Brian (Morgan), a transplant from back east where he had a similar case go wrong, could care less. He’s for working with anyone including a tough lady cop named Pam (Jessica Chastain) from a nearby town who is also doggedly pursuing any clues to the disappearances and murders of local teenage girls. So what if she happens to be his partner’s ex-wife?

As the three generate leads and uncover suspects, the film moves along, handling the procedural scenes with ease but always with a sense that a bigger budget or better script from Donald F. Ferrarone could have given Mann more to work with. As the suspect list narrows down, Mann stages an impressive car chase and some thrilling moments that involve a nasty group of lowlifes led by Lucie (Sheryl Lee in yet another white trash momma role), whose own daughter Ann (Chloe Grace Moretz) has gone missing.

It’s interesting that such a small film could attract such emerging talent like Worthington and Chastain in this her fourth film of the year. Morgan is known to most as the unfortunate Denny Duquette of “Gray’s Anatomy” fame, but he’s working his serious side here. Annabeth Gish is virtually wasted in a handful of scenes as his wife, leading to one of the film’s weaknesses: its inability to draw on the characters’ personal lives once it has established them. This is handled rather clumsily, providing little insight. For instance, we never learn what happened to Brian previously that drives him so relentlessly now. Or why Mike and Pam split when they obviously still care about each other. Sometimes it’s the back-story, stupid.

For such a prescient topic, this is a lost opportunity and just like Aussie Worthington’s Texas drawl, it misses the mark by a wide margin.“Texas Killing Fields” is playing exclusively at the Edwards Greenway Grand Palace in Houston.

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