‘Texas Killing Fields’: Weak harvest

October 17, 2011

Alternately laconic and overheated, Ami Canaan Mann’s “Texas Killing Fields,” which opened Oct. 14, is a two-pronged police procedural whose misdirection can’t disguise its essential lack of juice.

Based on a true story, the film is set in a small Texas town big enough to have a police force with detectives but not big enough to have its own crime lab. Which means that even though the cops are schooled in the art of collecting physical evidence, they have to rely on the efficiency (or inefficiency) of others to get it analyzed. It’s also one of those towns that abuts another jurisdiction, which leads to squabbles over who’s in charge at any given moment.’

Like when a hooker turns up dead in an alley: Is this a case for the town or the county? Who cares, really, when the body is oh so dead – and the evidence is about to get washed away by a thunder storm?

The two cops at the center of this story are Det. Souder (Sam Worthington), a local boy made good, and Det. Heigh (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a transplant from New York whose flaw is that he gets emotionally involved in his cases. For example, he has a connection with a juvenile offender, Anne (Chloe Grace Moretz from “Kick Ass” and “Let Me In”), who is not bad, just neglected by her drunk mother and obviously criminal brother. Heigh knows the brother (James Hebert) and his pal (Stephen Graham) are up to no good but he can’t prove what.

He’s also caught up in the death of that hooker, whose murder echoes but does not imitate the unsolved cases set in a dreary swampy bayou landscape outside of town, dubbed “the killing fields,” because the bodies of dead girls have been dumped there for several years. So Heigh and his partner start tracking the hooker’s killer, which leads them to a brutally efficient, overly tattooed dude, Rule (Jason Clarke), who is happy to kill anyone who gets in his way.

This is one of those thrillers that relies on the unreliability of cell phones for suspense. It also layers on a testy relationship between a pair of divorced cops (Worthington and the ever-present Jessica Chastain) who are forced to work together. And, finally, it’s a movie where cops who should know better rush into dangerous situations without backup.

Of course, without that kind of cop, where would movies like this be?

There are car chases, fights, scenes of tense interrogations – all the essentials. While Mann gets believable performances out of her cast – Chastain once again surprising, this time as a rough-’em-up Texas cop – she can’t make “Texas Killing Fields” into a believable or compelling film. It feels half-baked and half-hearted.

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