REVIEW: Moretz Aside, Texas Killing Fields Not So Killer
Every time Sam Worthington shows up in a movie, I squint and ask myself, "Who's that again?" That might happen two or three times with a new actor. But I feel as if I've seen a dozen Worthington performances by now, and I still squinted at him in Texas Killing Fields.
Maybe one of the problems is that although there's a good story here and, Worthington's aside, some good performances, there's just too much filmmaking going on in Texas Killing Fields: Ami Canaan Mann doesn't show anything to us straight when she can show it underlit, slightly tilted or heaped on a pile with dozens of other extraneous details. All that assertive stylishness wouldn't matter so much if it didn't obscure the basic plot: Texas Killing Fields follows two Texas City detectives -- local guy Mike Souder (Worthington) and New York transplant Brian Heigh (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) -- as they scratch their heads over a recent homicide. A young girl has been found murdered. Might it be linked to other murders of young women that have occurred just outside the cops' jurisdiction? Nah, says lazy, grouchy, pugilistic cop Mike. Probably! says intuitive, caring, principled, deeply Catholic Brian.
But that semi-exciting conflict doesn't come up until at least midway through the movie. Mostly, we see characters glancing significantly toward one another or arguing about things that don't matter all that much in the outcome, and there is one oh-so-clever red herring. There's also some ewky corpse stuff, which is very artistically shot -- by DP Stuart Drybergh -- but which still makes you go "eww." (We have the CSI shows and others like them to thank for that trend.) And somewhere in there, murkily lit, is Jessica Chastain, as the exhausted detective of the neighboring precinct who desperately needs help solving these murders. It also turns out she's Mike's ex-wife, though how these two could ever have shared a sandwich, let alone a life together, is something the movie never explores. It's just an extra little checkbox the movie ticks off.
Texas Killing Fields, written by Don Ferrarone, is loosely based on a series of real-life unsolved Texas murders. And there is an element of effective spookiness here, particularly in the performance of Chloë Grace Moretz as Little Anne, a girl just on the cusp of womanhood who's obviously at risk. Her mother (Sheryl Lee) kicks her out of the family shack every time she has her "friends" over, which is pretty much all the time. With nowhere to go, Little Anne wanders around town, and her presence is ghostly -- with her tangle of seaweed hair and pouty half-smile, she's like a figure from an old folk song, a wronged specter doomed to wander the plains.
Moretz brings some natural gravity to a role that hasn't been adequately fleshed out. And while Jeffrey Dean Morgan's Brian worries about her constantly, he also pretty much leaves her to the figurative wolves. (Having her over to dinner at his house once doesn't count.) Meanwhile, the disastrously mismatched Mike and Brian bicker and spar. You could really do something with this idea of reluctant police partners: The paired-off detectives we generally see in the movies and on TV always get along so famously, even when they pretend to hate each other.
But Texas Killing Fields has way too many fish to fry to follow that one little minnow. And that just causes the plot -- intriguing at first -- to become hopelessly tangled. Then there's the issue of Worthington. He'd be easy to take if he were just a bad actor. But he's something worse: a perfunctory one. He does work hard in Texas Killing Fields, glaring at Brian, or his ex-wife, or any number of thugs -- his recurring line is "Don't look at me like that!" when it's obvious that he's the one who's looking like that. And, as it turns out, his suspicion and belligerence do serve a purpose. But that doesn't mean we want to watch him exercise it for two hours. We get all sorts of hints about Mike's troubled past, but Worthington wears all his inner pain right on the surface. The rural Texas of Texas Killing Fields is a very dark place; Worthington's performance is like an advertising campaign for all that darkness, instead of a manifestation of the thing itself.