Inspired by a true story of a stark murder mystery with fierce performances by Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Sam Worthington. Texas Killing Fields surveys the white trash culture and its potential suspects in the unrelenting squalor of Texas City, Texas. The movie deals with prostitutes, pimps, junkies, neglected teens, excessive abuse by cops and the murders of young women. For gritty true stories it keeps the macabre fans watching. The free-floating cinematography feels unrestricted – it avoids the feeling of camera set-ups. Beyond stars Morgan (“Watchmen”) and Worthington (“Avatar”), as well as Jessica Chastain (“The Tree of Life”), even the unknown actors-residents embody an authenticity. For such rigid realism, however, the film doesn’t go for a completely conventional ending and as a result the ending just barely holds itself together. But we do get a closure on the final disgrace of the most villainous offenders.
The success of the film relies mostly in giving us a look at dirt poor America and its grubby denizens that have rarely been seen in films elsewhere. This is an ugly culture where even friends backstab each other. Detective Heigh and Detective Souder (Morgan and Worthington, respectively) define portraits of cops that are different from big city cops. Because of the degraded city that has suffered from low education, the cops get away with more brutality. But it’s real in the sense that the cops don’t shoot without purpose. You want them to shoot, but protocol demands that they can’t always not unless it meets with the standards of just cause.
An unknown murderer has left a body in a remote bayou. There are other bodies that are to be found. Tip-offs are made not to the detectives, but to us in the audience. One particular scene shows a tattooed blonde man as he tries to trick a young girl into taking a ride with him. Then you learn that he isn’t the only one of his white trash type to do such a thing in this city. There are creeps everywhere, so it can still be anyone. More story turns tie in.
That young girl nearly accosted is Anne (Chloe Grace Moretz, “Let Me In”), who often wanders the streets because her mom is performing tricks with johns at their home. The key suspect might be one of the johns. Then again most of these guys in town have a hooker or two as an arrangement, so once again, the mystery is yet again broadened. Our dedicated cops, at the edge of darkness (!), get into a number of altercations with this deadbeat hooker-mom.
Outside the interest of the drama, this film should be an alert that Worthington is a talented actor outside of “Avatar.” Chastain, as the cynical cop, demonstrates a large contrast to her other work this year that also included “The Help” and “Take Shelter.” But it is Jeffrey Dean Morgan (“Watchmen”), as the self-tormented detective, that steals the show. He might become the Anglo version of Javier Bardem. Part of the relationship tension of the film is that he is more dedicated to risk than his partner Worthington. He has failed to solve an investigation before and refuses to fail again.
A final note is that it has been directed by Ami Canaan Mann, the daughter of the renowned Michael Mann (“Manhunter,” “Heat”). This film proves that she isn’t a case of nepotism. She has learned to employ much of the blistering and gritty style that is her father’s instrument. All she needs to learn now is how to deliver a straight-forward ending and leave the arty archness behind.
110 Minutes. Rated R.
TRUE LIFE CRIME STORY / VIOLENT THRILLERS / WATCH ANY NIGHT OF THE WEEK EXCEPT FRIDAY
Film Cousins: “The Onion Field” (1979); “Manhunter” (1986); “Lone Star” (1996); “Animal Kingdom” (2010, Australia).