There's something about the combination of crime, crazy and cops specific to small-town Texas that is irresistible to filmmakers. Indulging the urge to scratch that sleazy underbelly has produced everything from classic to camp: "The Getaway," "Hud," "Blood Simple," "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre," to mention a few of the more unforgettable bad seeds. The new crime thriller "Texas Killing Fields" is certainly shooting to join that crowd but misfires too many times to make the cut.
It's too bad. There is enough mystery in the murdering that gives the film its name, enough through-the-glass-darkly in the style of director Ami Canaan Mann (dad is master Michael) and enough Texas-sized turmoil stirring up its serious cast — Sam Worthington, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Jessica Chastain — to keep things interesting. But like the Texas City killer's plans, something's gone terribly wrong.
"Texas Killing Fields" is loosely based on a true story of unsolved slayings in southeast Texas. In the movie, the bodies of more than 50 girls, mostly teenagers, have turned up with alarming frequency in a ghostly, swampy place just on the edge of nowhere, officially called Texas City, Texas.
In one of the many details that makes the movie feel like a TV procedural, the fields are just outside the town's jurisdiction, falling instead into the one where tough-as-nails Pam Stall (Chastain) does her detective work. But that big old bunch of cold cases just bugs the heck out of Texas City Det. Brian Heigh (Morgan, looking sadder than when he was dying full time on "Grey's Anatomy"), a New York City transplant who just can't let that much unfinished business alone. It's an attitude that doesn't sit well with his partner, Worthington's Mike Souder, but we don't really know why — he makes some noise about stretched resources, and he's not on the best of terms with Pam, who happens to be his ex-wife.
You can see the noir influences of father ("Heat," "Collateral") on daughter, and indeed the look of "Texas Killing Fields" is its best feature. Mann, working with veteran cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (whose eclectic résumé includes "The Painted Veil," "The Piano" and "Bridget Jones's Diary"), creates a landscape coated with the grime the local refinery belches out each day. It's a place where there is little hope and a lot of misery for most folks, with drugs and drink consumed in great quantities to ease the pain.
That's certainly the case with teenager Little Anne, graced by the haunting presence of Chloe Grace Moretz ("Kick-Ass," "Let Me In"), whose family couldn't even find the wrong side of the tracks. She's been in trouble often enough that the police know her, with Brian keeping an eye out for her when he can. Though other bodies are stacking up nearly every day it seems, and the killer starts taunting the cops, Little Anne becomes the axis for action.
There is a lot of angst and anger walking around on-screen trying to pass for substance, mostly a lot of cops getting all up in criminals' faces. But as good as Worthington, Chastain, Moretz and Morgan can be as they try to untangle the morass and the menace — and get caught up in it — they just can't quite pull it off. (Though let me give a shout-out to whoever helped Chastain and Worthington master a very credible Texas drawl — well done).
The real killer, sadly, is the script. The plotting is kind of like Texas City — there's some good and a whole lot of bad. Don F. Ferrarone, a longtime Drug Enforcement Administration agent turned movie consultant and now screenwriter, spent time with the real detectives working the "Killing Fields" cases. That he knows so much about the subject, and feels so strongly, is apparent. But things are either under-explained, like the Worthington character's seething rage, or over-explained, like everything about a key suspect, the many-tattooed Rule (Jason Clarke).
The narrative swings wildly between people and places and events, which requires a lot of mood swings of the actors. That would be fine if they were grounded in a reality that we either understood or were interested in. It's not just the bodies of all those young girls we're left searching for; the soul's gone missing in Texas City — and that's a crime scene that all of Mann's visual style can't cover up.