Texas Killing Fields: Venice Film Review

Venice Film Festival
By-the-numbers police procedural drama provides a so-so showcase for its eye-catching cast.

Sam Worthington, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Chloë Grace Moretz and Jessica Chastain star in a cop-thriller from Ami Canaan Mann, making her second film.

This cop procedural has grown to dominate adult-oriented broadcasting around the world in recent years, and while Stuart Dryburgh’s 35mm cinematography in Texas Killing Fields is best appreciated in theaters, overall treads territory long since made familiar by CSI and its many variants and offshoots.

A just-OK second feature from Ami Canaan Mann – daughter of Michael Mann, one of two credited producers here – and the latest outing for Avatar and Clash of the Titans’ Sam Worthington, the film will undoubtedly obtain much more exposure than its predecessor Morning, an indie that made little impact a full decade ago.

Somewhat generously included in the main competition section at Venice, it’s scheduled for a limited Stateside release in early October. Despite the presence of some notable names at the top of the cast including the currently ubiquitous Jessica Chastain, the steadily-paced drama looks more of a small-screen proposition.

Donald F. Ferrarone’s script adheres to the long-hackneyed tradition of following two mismatched partners as they go about their business: Brian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is a gruff, husky, religiously devout New Yorker, a family man who has transferred to southern Texas after one of his cases went awry. Still adjusting to his new environment, he’s guided in the ways of this particular part of the world by local boy Mike (Worthington), a younger man not long divorced from colleague Pam (Chastain). Brian and Mike’s investigations into the murder of a prostitute, and the disappearance of another young woman, lead them to the bayous bordering their patch, a long-notorious, eerie zone known as the “Killing Fields.”

While the film’s characters and stories are fictional, they are, as opening titles dutifully inform us, “Inspired by True Events.” The Killing Fields is an actual area where bodies have been dumped for more than 40 years though these are generally accepted to be the work of various different murderers. There’s clearly rich material here for a big-screen treatment, but Ferrarone and Mann err by devoting so much screen time to one potential victim.

School-age Ann (Chloë Grace Moretz) lives with her addict mother Lucie (Sheryl Lee) in a sleazy waterfront shack, a highly hazardous and unsuitable environment for an innocent, intelligent child who, as Mike and Brian realize, deserves the chance of a better future.

Ann is repeatedly placed in situations of peril, to the extent that genuine tension never quite materializes. Mann punctuates Brian and Mike’s patient, occasionally outside-the-rules detective work with the occasional violent action-heavy sequence, the latter notable for Mann’s effective deployment of a propulsive, slightly offbeat score from sometime Claire Denis collaborator Dickon Hinchliffe. Additional music in the form of southern-flavored folk-rock from the Americans helps boost the atmosphere of a project which, like fellow Venice competitor Killer Joe, was shot entirely in Louisiana, location scout Jimmy Trotter having unearthing some suitably spooky marshland.

But despite the richness of such background detail, Texas Killing Fields frustratingly falls short in terms of plot development and characterization. Worthington, Morgan and Chastain provide further evidence that they’re essentially character-players rather than fledgling movie stars, while British scene-stealer Stephen Graham is given disappointingly little to chew on as a sinister suspect. Little Moretz, however, once again proves that her deceptively slim shoulders can cope with all manner of heavy lifting.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Anchor Bay Films
Cast: Sam Worthington, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Chloë Grace Moretz, Jessica Chastain
Director: Ami Canaan Mann
Screenwriter: Donald F. Ferrarone
Producers: Michael Jaffe, Michael Mann
Executive producers: Bill Block, Paul Hanson, Justin Thompson, Anthony J. A. Bryan Jr, Ethan Smith, John Friedberg, Michael Ohoven
Director of photography: Stuart Dryburgh
Production designer: Aran Reo Mann
Music: Dickon Hinchliffe
Editors: Cindy Mollo
Sales: QED International, Los Angeles
Rated R, 105 minutes