'Texas Killing Fields'

A pair of cops investigate the murders of two young women in Ami Canaan Mann's poorly assembled sophomore feature.

A pair of cops investigate the murders of two young women in “Texas Killing Fields,” Ami Canaan Mann’s poorly assembled sophomore feature. Script by former DEA officer Don Ferrarone isn’t that bad in itself, but matters aren’t helped by the mumbled perfs and poor sound, which make it hard to hear what anyone’s saying, while sloppy editing wreaks havoc on the story. The admittedly strong central car chase is the best part of the film, produced by Michael Mann, the helmer’s father. Opening theatrically Oct. 7, “Texas” looks likely to go to the ancillary killing fields quickly.

In Texas City, Texas, detective Mike Souder (Sam Worthington) and his partner, Brian Heigh (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), are called out to investigate the murder of an unidentified teenage girl. On their way back to the station from the crime scene, they give a lift to Little Anne (Chloe Grace Moretz, “Kick-Ass”), a local teen delinquent whose skanky mother Lucie (Sheryl Lee) regularly kicks Anne out in the evening so she can entertain her “boyfriends,” like local oil-refinery worker Rhino (Stephen Graham).

Around the same time, Souder’s ex-wife, Pam (Jessica Chastain, easily best in show), a detective in the neighboring county, asks for their help with the case of another missing woman, Lila. Her body is most likely somewhere in the desolate bayou swamplands locally known as the killing fields, where so many corpses have turned up over the years. Heigh, obsessed with the killing-fields murders, wants to assist, but Souder, leery of being around his ex, prefers to stick with the case they already have, which seems to implicate a pair of local pimps (Jason Clarke and Jon Eyez).

It’s corny enough when the pic mentions that even the local Native Americans shunned the killing fields back in their day. But why, one wonders? Was there an ancient burial mound there or something? The screenplay offers no explanation, just as it fails to elucidate just how Souder always knows, as if by magic, exactly where Heigh is when he’s about to get into a fight and needs rescuing.

That said, there are bits of the film that work well, such as a short but credible scene in which the detectives ask some African-Americans for information about the pimps, and their lilting banter, or at least what one can hear of it, has the ring of veracity. The aforementioned car chase is also stylishly executed and choreographed; in fact, it’s good enough to make the flaws elsewhere seem even more aggravating. A jarring ellipsis — in one scene, Anne is followed by one of the pimps, and in the next she’s seen going to dinner at Heigh’s house — suggests something went wrong in the editing suite.

Joining the roll call of talent submitting less than their best work, d.p. Stuart Dryburgh (“The Piano”) lenses the action without his usual flair, except for the striking shots of the killing-field landscape, while the soundtrack by Dickon Hinchcliffe, who’s done such wondrous work in his collaborations with Claire Denis, turns in an equally bland score featuring, as seemingly every film about Texas must, lots of slide guitar.

Texas Killing Fields

Production

An Anchor Bay Films presentation of a Blue Light Block, Hanson Watley Entertainment production in association with Infinity Media. (International sales: QED Intl., Los Angeles.) Produced by Michael Mann, Michael Jaffe. Executive producers, Bill Block, Paul Hanson, Justin Thompson, Anthony J.A. Bryan Jr., Ethan Smith, John Friedberg, Michael Ohoven. Directed by Ami Canaan Mann. Screenplay, Donald F. Ferrarone.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Stuart Dryburgh; editor, Cindy Mollo; music, Dickon Hinchcliffe; production designer, Aran Canann Mann; art director, Jonah Markowitz; set decorator, Leonard R. Spears; costume designer, Christopher Lawrence; sound (SDDS/Dolby Digital), Ron King; re-recording mixers, Christopher Barnett; casting, Bonnie Timmerman, Kerry Barden, Paul Schnee. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 9, 2011. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 104 MIN.

With

Sam Worthington, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Chloe Grace Moretz, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Graham, Sheryl Lee, Jason Clarke, Deneen Tyler, Jon Eyez.

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