It may be going against the grain, but I actually thoroughly enjoyed Ami Canaan Mann’s sophomore directorial effort, Texas Killing Fields. The second film from the daughter of acclaimed filmmaker Michael Mann (Manhunter, Heat, Miami Vice) is far from the gloomy mess that many reviewers would have you believe. Sure, it’s not a masterpiece – and it’s far from the almost insurmountable peaks of her father’s film history – but it shows a proficient, professional budding young director honing her talents and proving that she has not only learnt a few neat tricks from her dad, but has also crafted the makings of a style all of her own. Based on this film alone – even if her work still needs a little refinement – I would think that she has a promising career ahead of her.
Since 1971 over 60 bodies have been found just outside Texas City.
The film is based loosely on a series of unsolved murders which occurred a while back, where a number of women were abducted from I-45; their bodies later found dumped in an old abandoned oil field in Texas.
Transferred New York Detective Brian Heigh and his partner, Detective Mike Sounder – who was born and raised in the Texas Bayous – are investigating a spate of killings along the border of the local marshlands; an area ominously nicknamed the “Killing Fields”. Although just outside their jurisdiction, Heigh in unable to walk away from these crimes, becoming increasingly obsessed with the murders, despite his partner’s warnings. And as the attacks get closer and closer to home, it becomes a race against time to catch the murderers.
Originally envisaged as a project for director Danny Boyle (Sunshine, 28 Days Later), Boyle soon left the scene, regarding the film as being “too dark to get made”. Whilst I agree that this is a dark film, by Boyle standards it’s comparatively lightweight, so I’m not really sure what he was complaining about. Still, by anybody else’s standards, there’s no denying the dark and atmospheric mood, which pervades the piece and engulfs you for the duration.
Indeed Ami Canaan Mann builds an atmosphere not wholly unlike some of her father’s immersive efforts, albeit allowing the weather and natural environment to become more influential elements in the proceedings – thunderstorms drumming up a serious underscore of bass and low-level natural lighting suitably setting the mood. Some might say her attempts at capturing an authentic look make this just that little bit too realistic in feel, but there’s enough grittiness about the piece to keep it firmly in the dark cop thriller genre, and her nascent style is starting to become apparent.
Into this oppressive environment she throws us a series of ostensibly clichéd characters, and a fairly commonplace procedural whodunit plot, only she delivers them in such a way as to make it feel fairly fresh and even quite unusually stylish in its own right. We get the world-weary outsider expert partnered with the hard-nosed local cop who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks; we get the potential red herring low-lives who everybody seems focussed upon, juxtaposed with the seemingly innocuous characters who may actually have a more sinister part to play – it’s all been tried and tested, and yet Mann throws us into the story midway through (again a clever tactic borrowed from dad but made her own) and allows us to pick up the pieces over the duration, making the otherwise standard story considerably more interesting, and the characters far more naturally rounded.
It helps no end that her cast help keep everything together with a string of solid performances. Jeffrey Dean Morgan leads the pack, as the more experienced New York detective transplanted into a world he hasn’t quite gotten accustomed to yet, but a world which he finds himself intractably embroiled in. Reminiscent of an American variation to Spain’s acclaimed Javier Bardem, Morgan is a thoroughly affable, engaging character actor who really needs more lead roles to get his teeth into. I enjoyed him in The Losers – a film which I actually thought was more fun than many gave it credit for, and which was the first of a planned two-parter; disappointingly aborted due to the lacklustre Box Office returns – and he was great in Watchman, playing a far more tragic, and considerably more meaty role. He nails the beleaguered veteran detective here, as convincing in his increasing obsession over the murders as he is in his fatherly support for a young local girl trapped in an unsuitable environment.
Partnering him with Sam Worthington – commonly referred to as Worthlessington – would have normally immediately put me off the piece, but Ami Mann actually brings out his best side, allowing him to get into a more involving character than we are used to from him; boasting his usual look, but a suitably different – and suitably convincing – Southern drawl. Perhaps it’s his playing second fiddle to Jeffrey Morgan that benefits the role, or perhaps he’s just grown in his acting skills, but this is a far cry from his ‘Titans role, and a long way from the generically wooden military man he’s epitomised in everything from Avatar to Terminator: Salvation.
Support comes from the likes of Jessica Chastain, showing us a very different side to her ethereal housewife in The Tree of Life or even to her white-trash-with-a-heart role in The Help, here playing Worthington’s character’s no-nonsense ex (they also starred opposite each other in The Debt), who also happens to be a cop; Jason Clarke (who was in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies) as quite a creepy killer; Sheryl Lee (Twin Peaks) as a drugged-out single mum; Annabeth Gish (The X-Files) as Morgan’s supportive-but-concerned cop wife; and Stephen Graham, who brings a hint of the intensity he exudes as a young Al Capone in the excellent HBO TV drama Boardwalk Empire to a role which requires just his kind of brooding menace.
Chloe Grace Moretz – the growing-up-too-fast star component in Kick Ass, Let Me In and Hugo – gets another great opportunity to shine, here playing somebody much more her age, but still meaty enough to show off her undeniable acting chops. Reminiscent of the role Natalie Portman got to play in Heat at a similarly young age – only with more room to develop her character here – Moretz is definitely one to watch.
Between the competent, willing performances of the cast and the moody undertones of the well-constructed – if not wholly original – story, Texas Killing Fields succeeds at gripping for the duration, giving us characters to root for, and characters to want wiped from the face of the planet; as well as painting a reasonably rich portrait of colourful Southern life and impoverished, crime-ridden existence. Even the action sequences are surprisingly tense and shockingly eventful, with only the car chase conclusion smacking a little bit too much of “borrowed that one from dad’s benchmark shootout in Heat”, only invoking the complete opposite feeling in the viewer – for a professional, trying to shoot a distantly fleeing car with a shotgun seems like a distinct case of you picked the wrong weapon for the job, pal.
However, at the end of the day, Texas Killing Fields is a dark, atmospheric, and at times unusually unpredictable thriller which has most of the right elements required to stand out in an already over-populated genre. It may be familiar territory, it may not be completely refined, but for a sophomore effort, it’s a worthy offering. In fact I think that there’s enough going on here to definitely give us a decent look at what Michael Mann’s daughter is capable of in her own right. Who knows how long it will take for her to completely step out of her father’s prestigious shadow, but this is certainly a step in the right direction.
I can see why Texas Killing Fields didn’t see a huge theatrical release, and also why it wasn’t lapped up by audiences at Cannes – it’s too mainstream to fully appeal to the latter, whilst too low-key and independent to draw in the crowds. This, plus the abundance of negative reviews, still shouldn’t stop you giving it a shot on home release. It is a good, solid thriller, driven by engaging performances and refreshingly atmospheric direction. Recommended.
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