Director Ami Canaan Mann is not at all uncomfortable with supplying the viewer only with quick-cut images at first, calling on the viewer’s participation in fashioning the story line. But even by the end, she’s not aiming for clarity so much as gut-twisting emotion.
Brian Heigh (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is a New York City police detective who is in the swamps of the Texas coastlands trying to help solve a serial murderer crime spree. His local liaison is Mike Souder (Sam Worthington), who seems to have a parochial kind of superstitious fear about the unnavigable wasteland outside of Texas City. But it turns out he is still haunted by childhood memories and associations, and his demons are evident in his divorce from the other local detective (Jessica Chastain) and his weekends spent binge drinking.
Heigh, for his part, has a hair-trigger temper in dealing with obstructionist yokels, and when the killer sends him taunting messages with random clues, he begins to really take this personally. In the course of his bull-in-a-china-shop style of investigation, he unearths a local prostitution ring, long ignored by local law enforcement, with a side dish of a stolen auto “chop shop.” Heigh also develops a soft spot for one particular teenager wandering the streets, Anne (Chloe Grace Moretz), whose Mother (Sheryl Lee) routinely runs her out of the house so she can “entertain.” Lots of pathos all around.
But the grim, desperate pursuit begins in earnest when Anne herself is kidnapped, and the two partners can’t agree on a strategy to search for her, though both are frantic, and both are way too emotionally involved to be objective about anything.
The implied voodoo of the swampland is an added dimension to the suspense, but this movie is menacing even during the silences. There’s no love here, nobody is happy, everyone is desperate about something, and there is no humor or romance anywhere in sight. It’s just a grim march to the finish, which surprisingly resembles an Old West gunfight, where the winner is not necessarily the one who’s in the right, but only the last man left standing. Whether or not he flinched first.
Chilling. Haunting. Gruesome. Harrowing. “Texas Killing Fields” is sinister and dark and brooding, which will make it compelling only to the CSI junkie who wants to see it all ratcheted up a notch.
Ronald P. Salfen is interim pastor of St. Stephens Presbyterian Church, Irving, Texas.