Beginning in the 1970s, dead girls started turning up in the mesquite-choked wetlands bordering the I-45 corridor between Galveston and Houston. Like the lost women of Juarez, they have remained a mystery, haunting southern Texas and giving birth to local lore, conspiracy theories, and at least one film that, like so many women along that stretch of highway, appeared briefly in the papers before being forgotten and then turning up as the subject of a Dateline: Mystery episode.
For a movie directed by Michael Mann’s daughter, Ami Canaan (pretty competently, I might add), and starring a post-Avatar Sam Worthington (who doesn’t just show up to work, but actually turns in what looks like a real performance this time), and current it girl, Jessica Chastain, it was seen by almost no one. Danny Boyle apparently dropped out of the project, realizing that he doesn’t win any awards for making movies that aren’t ridiculous (I’m looking at you, Chai Boy).
If I’d had my way, you’d never be an uskawenneh!
Worthington stars as a sad sack detective, divorced from fellow law enforcer Jessica Chastain. His partner is Jeffrey Dean Morgan, playing a devout Catholic from New York, who just doesn’t get these East Texas folks. When the brutalized bodies start piling up in and around the bayou, the three work together to crack the case, which has pretty obvious suspects from the get go.
This guy is probably not involved, right? Guys? He’s not, right? Anybody?
This is a story with great potential and it is to director Mann’s credit that she avoids easy serial killer and procedural movie clichés, instead focusing on the meditative aspects of being a small town cop, of being a hero out of his/her depth. The men and women portrayed are good people more used to busting up parties and collaring drunks. When corpses start accumulating, the locals start to realize, pretty slowly, how deep in over their heads they are.
This is Mann’s first outing as a director, but she manages to coax some very strong performances from her actors. Worthington in particular manages to slough off his squinty action hero exterior and, with a few stutter steps, actually inhabits a character who we might meet in the real world. Morgan and Chastain are uniformly excellent (as they are wont to be) and the young Chloe Grace Moretz, as the teen in peril, displays a certain soulfulness that tends to be lacking in tween performers. The actors acquit themselves as genuine human beings, caught up in a story that confounds everything they know about life. Everything about the film feels lived in, from the Texas shaped clocks on the wall to ceiling panels in the police station.
There are also some sincerely scary moments. In what is the masterful centerpiece of the film, we watch as a downtrodden single mother frantically calls the cops while a masked killer lurks behind her bedroom door–we realize it before she does, and it’s terrifying. It’s a well controlled sequence, which underscores the wasted potential of the rest of the film.
The good guys don’t always win, and in the case of the real story, they haven’t… yet. What begins as a slow burn work of dread, an investigation of parochial evil that lurks just below the surface of the South, ends in a neatly tied up bloodbath in which most of the bad actors dispatch each other with guns and knives. The mystery should feel deeper, more complicated, but it boils down to a few honkies getting their rocks off by hurting women and dying up in a Mexican standoff. Blame these contrivances on the script, written by Don Ferrarone who did not make the transition from cop to technical adviser to screenwriter with any particular grace. Texas Killing Fields, a movie that starts out as something in the league of David Fincher’s Zodiac (one of the best movies ever made, period) devolves in the last act to resemble an episode of Law and Order: SVU.
East Texas accents are a weird interbreeding of drawling and twang, taking as much from the Louisiana Delta as they do from the Texas Hill Country. I should know, my accent (which comes out when I’m drunk) is of the Northern Panhandle Slowtalk variety. It is perhaps not Sam Worthington’s fault that he comes across as an Australian impersonating adulterer and presidential candidate John Edwards, but it is a distraction. Complaining about accents is a niggling thing, but it’s exceptionally egregious here, especially because, given the pedigree of the movie, maybe somebody could probably have just called Tommy Lee Jones for a quick lesson.
Seriously, he’s not really doing anything these days besides shilling for fracking companies.
I stand firmly in the camp that says adaptations of both real life and books have no obligation to follow the facts religiously. Films are a unique animal and they need their breathing room. L.A. Confidential was a prime example of how one should go about the task of dealing with a sprawling plot, and it stands to this day as an object lesson in the utility and thrift of screenwriting (even James Ellroy said as much). I cannot, regretfully, give any such pass to Texas Killing Fields. The real case is so much more complicated, so muck murkier, and so much sadder. Mann and Ferrarone would have done well to borrow more from real life. Had they done that, they might have come up with something transcendent.
You’re better off watching the 48 Hours: Mystery retelling. The I-45 bodies haven’t gone away and the people involved in this bleak chapter of Texas history are still alive to tell their own piece of the story. Nobody saw the movie, but maybe everybody should know the tale. Or just rewatch Zodiac.
Take a Drink: whenever Jeffrey Dean Morgan says a prayer over a body.
Take a Drink: when you see the Shiner Bock banner, a just so detail that adds a shot of authenticity to the proceedings (it’s like mother’s milk in Texas).
Take a Drink: whenever you see the map of the kill sites.