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|Cinema Signal: Not quite a green light but has elements of strong appeal for its target audience.|
"Texas Killing Fields"
One of the interesting things about this film is that it's a directorial feature debut by the daughter of big-budget, violence-loving Michael Mann. I'd be too presumptuous to suggest there's a familial connection between her choice of story material -- in this case one about a psychopathic killer and a couple of cohorts -- and dad's body of work, or that hers is any more Michael Mann lite than to say Sophia Coppola's credits are Francis Coppola lite. In both cases, the opposite seems to be true -- the daughters go with quite different subjects and/or approaches, and with their own voices. So much for cinematic DNA.
Here, there also be violence as we follow a very tense struggle between two law enforcement individuals with starkly different training trying to track down the serial killer who has been praying on young girls for years and dumping their mutilated bodies in a Texas bayou known hereabouts as "The Killing Fields."
Based on true events, this is a thriller with violence more suggested than directly witnessed. Mann creates an eerie sense of forboding, heightened by the continual presence of little Anne Sliger (Chloe Grace Moretz, "Let Me In"), a pretty potential victim who obviously shares a profile with the dead girls who have been found dead. She doesn't say much but she's dangled before us like luscious bait to keep the suspense quotient high as the impending tragedy to someone we grow to care about becomes more and more inevitable.
It's almost a cliche' to cast Moretz in a damsel-in-distress role.
The uneasy relationship between bible-talking Det. Brian Heigh (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, "The Resident"), a NYC transplant to the big state, and his white-shirted, hard-edged partner, detective Mike Souder (Sam Worthington, "Avatar") brings in the element of tension on the law enforcement level. A major point of contention is whether they should set foot in the swampland of death, a place that's outside their jurisdiction.
Heigh can't leave it alone, though and, with Det. Souder's ex-wife Det. Pam Stall (Jessica Chastain, "Take Shelter"), whose jurisdiction it is, asking for help in a case that's over her head, he makes a night-long vigil in hopes of trapping the sadistic murderer before he kills again. (The detective's either nuts or courageous).
The killer, however, is a smug, malicious type and he makes a game of it by leaving false and misleading clues, matching wits with the cops as he decides on his next victim. This substantiates the sub-title, "No One Is Safe."
And, then, sweet Anne goes missing and the clock starts ticking.
The pacing is wobbly, at best, and the uneven flow suggests an unsure hand and a lot of editing. Characters are types rather than anyone we get a feel for as individuals. Don Ferrarone's script could have used one more revision for sequential flow, character depth and back-story clarity purposes. Also to expunge a sub-plot about another killer that serves as a red herring but goes nowhere and exists precisely in order to confuse.
But, inexact as it may be, it's worth seeing for its approach to a genre that could use an infusion of fresh blood behind the camera who is of a mind to create variations on a theme. This one's a bit of a miss, but she'll no doubt have more to offer. And, let's hope that for Ami Canaan Mann's next time out she insists on more verbal clarity from her performers.
Dad Michael Mann wasn't far away from his daughter's feature debut being one of the producers. The film provides a welcome change of context for the fine cast, which is its pricipal virtue, even if it seems a stretch to place Aussie Worthington as a local boy in bayou country.
Production credits are okay, with a special nod to Dickon Hinchliffe ("Winter's Bone," "Rampart") for original steel guitar music that could well have been spawned in the lush and mysterious bayou and which kept the eerie mood and suspense at a heightened level.
~~ Jules Brenner