Jeffrey Dean Morgan in TEXAS KILLING FIELDS (Photo: Anchor Bay Films)

Directed by Ami Canaan Mann
Produced by Michael Mann & Michael Jaffe
Written by Don F. Ferrarone
Released by Anchor Bay Films
USA. 105 min. Rated R
With Sam Worthington, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jessica Chastain, Chloë Grace Moretz, Annabeth Gish, Sheryl Lee & Stephen Graham

Texas Killing Fields is the first film by Ami Canaan Mann, daughter of Michael (also a producer). On the surface she would appear to have her father’s good sense of a raw, naturalistic crime drama. Two cops in rural Texas, one from New York City, Brian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), and one from the Lone Star State, Mike (Sam Worthington), come across a series of homicides, all taking place in marshland where the bodies of women and girls are found with similar patterns of stab wounds.

On the surface, the film could go one of two ways, or perhaps a third: a very straightforward, by-the-numbers serial killer/detective yarn, like an overlong TV episode, or a story that delves deeper into the character’s psychologies, like a full-on noir. As it turns out, the filmmakers choose the third route, combining the two approaches.

One could say that Texas Killing Fields is a predictable, atmospheric procedural with some strong characterizations. I suspect that the Manns looked at Ferrarone’s script and saw some potential, but not so much with the story. While the main characters are interesting, they’re not particularly original or engaging. Jessica Chastain’s Pam, the tough female detective of the police force (and a love interest of Mike’s), has a little more dimension though sadly less screen time past the halfway park. It also doesn’t help when the script has the characters laying out the themes of the film, “It’s really different down here [in Texas]”), as opposed to just showing it, which is much more effective.

So what Mann has found really captivating are the background levels of this world, the supporting characters, and the whole atmosphere of a dank, lower-class Texas with its shady characters. In fact, Texas Killing Fields works much better as a study of class and damaged family units than as a murder mystery since there isn’t so much to the whodunit. (One may try to guess, but once it’s revealed, it’s less a “oh wow” than a “that figures.”) As Mike and Brian go through the dank parts of town questioning the locals, one understands what drew the director to this material and how the naturalistic tone suits these scenes very well (many of the actors seem to be non-professionals). And as for the rest of the cast, Chloë Grace Moretz steals all of her scenes, even though the writing doesn’t give her much to do. She plays Brian’s daughter, working through some familial issues that feel urgent set against the rest of the plot. What’s commanding about her performance is how she can hold her own against Morgan or, later on, Stephen Graham (Al Capone on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) as an innocent coming of age amid the serial killings.

For a first time filmmaker, Mann knows where to point the camera and gets some really good work from her cast (special mention to Sheryl Lee from Twin Peaks, who turns up as a drug addict), and the locations and bursts of action are right on the money. I look forward to see what she does with higher-caliber material.