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Texas Killing Fields

24 Nov

Title: Texas Killing Fields
Year: 2011
Director: Ami Canaan Mann
Writer: Don Ferrarone
Starring: Sam Worthington, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jessica Chastain, Chloë Grace Moretz, Jason Clarke
MPAA Rating: R, violence and language including some sexual references
Runtime: 105 min
Major Awards: –
IMDb Rating: 5.5
Rotten Tomatoes: 35%

And so we arrive at the fifth stop in the Jessica Chastain Breakout Tour 2011. I, like many, have been making note of the fact that Ms. Chastain is becoming tremendously ubiquitous this year, using the whole of 2011 as one huge coming-out party to establish herself as one of the very best even though she’s only been at it for a year, a party that isn’t stopping anytime soon, with Coriolanus and Wilde Salome still to come. The thing is that not only has Ms. Chastain seemingly been in every other film this year, not only has she been good in them, but she’s been in some spectacularly great films. I mean, The Tree of Life is masterpiece which I gave a perfect score to, The Help I gave an A- to, I awarded a B+ to The Debt and gave an A to the last film of hers I had seen, Jeff Nichols’ brilliant Take Shelter. Her perfect streak, however, ends with Texas Killing Fields, which I just saw.

Don’t get me wrong, Ms. Chaistain is perfectly fine here, and the film is actually a decent enough crime thriller, but it just wasn’t original at all to me, and I can’t recommend it because of that, because it’s just giving us stuff that we’ve seen in way too many films of its kind before. Not to mention that I thought the cast, which also included Sam Worthington (who also starred in The Debt with Ms. Chastain), Jeffrey Dean Morgan and the awesome Chloë Grace Moretz had much more potential than what was realized on-screen.

We’re thrown into the Texas bayou, where of course pretty horrible stuff happens more than in your average location, and which gives us these two local detectives trying to figure out the murder of a young girl. Look, the film does its job, I want to make that clear, it tells an above-average crime story in its center and fills the gaps in with looks at small-town police work and daily life, even if the latter two it doesn’t do as effectively. Still, it’s good that we get to know the places and the faces, especially when we have fine actors doing the telling, I just thought that this kind of stuff is the sort we can find in just as good a quality, if not better, in a couple of the procedurals currently on TV.

Don Ferrarone, a former DEA agent an advisor on films such as Man on Fire and Enemy of the State, makes his screenwriting debut here, with directing duties falling onto the equally unexperienced Ami Canaan Mann, who had only directed another feature-length film and that was back in 2001 and was little-seen (though in the interim she did direct an episode of Friday Night Lights, the best TV series of all-time in my humble opinion), she’s the daughter of Michael Mann, who acted as a producer here and I’m guessing paired her up with Mr. Ferrarone who acted as an advisor on his Miami Vice film adaptation. The thing is, it kind of shows in this film that they were a pair that hasn’t had much experience crafting these films, because while the atmosphere feels believable and sucks you in, the character development is just super messy and does nothing to keep you engaged in the proceedings.

It’s that lack of detail that made this film one I wouldn’t really recommend, because while the players assembled in front of the camera are all great, Mr. Worthington actually delivering one of the better performances I’ve seen of him, the plot and dynamics of this whole film just seem rehashed from one too many TV shows which was what lost my attention. Not to mention that, in the moments that the film deviated from the formulaic approach, it went way off the rails and had me lose my grasp on the story, with scenes that didn’t always follow each other and the role of the characters not always super clear. You got presented to stuff that seemed vital and then you lost sight of them, the elements were there for this to be a really decent little crime thriller but it’s just to messy to get its act together, literally.

The good thing, like I said, is that however messy the direction otherwise is, Ms. Mann shows a great hand at creating a really effective atmosphere in this film. The quiet moments, the interrogation scenes, the car chase, those were all really well done. And the cinematography by Stuart Dryburgh (an Oscar-nominee for The Piano and who will also work with Michael Mann on his upcoming Luck pilot for HBO) was really effective, making every location seem like a place in which something huge was happening. So yes, there were some good parts, and the performances by absolutely everyone involved here were great, it’s just that the plot structure was all over the place, and once you got past the police case, which wasn’t all that interesting to begin with, you’re left with characters that you can’t really invest on because they’re so underdeveloped, no matter who’s playing them. It’s a respectful attempt, but I couldn’t help but feel that Texas Killing Fields would have worked much better as some kind of supersized pilot episode for an upcoming network procedural.

Grade: C+