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December 1, 2013

Texas Killing Fields

by Franz Patrick


Texas Killing Fields (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★

Mike Souder (Sam Worthington) and Brian Heigh (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), homicide detectives, one local-based, the other from the city, respectively, are assigned to investigate kidnappings and murders of teen girls in rural Texas. Pam Stall (Jessica Chastain), a homicide detective from Texas City and Souder’s ex-wife, asks for their help because their murders seem to be related.

Inspired by a true story, “Texas Killing Fields,” written by Don Ferrarone and directed by Ami Canaan Mann, strips away all the glamour from what we expect of movies when it comes to the way cops track down serial killers. First, there is a lot of dirty work being portrayed like Stall having to slap around potential witnesses for the sake of information that might lead to the identity of the killer. Her officers look on like it is standard procedure. Heigh relies on someone from a telephone company to track down a cell phone signal without proper authorization. Meanwhile, Souder is unable to see beyond stereotypes which tinges his supposedly objective judgment.

Second, there is something visceral about the look and feel of the film. When a killer attacks and abducts his victim, it is shot sans fancy camera somersaults but every bit of horror is captured. By just allowing us to see what happens without music playing in the background, I felt that the events unfolding before our eyes can happen at any small town.

Lastly, the sense of place contributes to the increasing tension surrounding the mystery. A lot of people the detectives interact with are either poor white families or poor black families. Despite the racial difference, their deeply-rooted commonality is the belief that if they keep secrets from the cops, it is the great equalizer for being underrepresented and misrepresented. Yet the filmmakers find a way, subtle ways, to communicate that not all of the residents are bad or unwilling to cooperate. Sometimes they might be very bad but they are more than willing to go down to the police station for an interview.

However, I wished the film had given us more information about Souder, Heigh, and Stall. While each has a distinct personality and ways of accomplishing goals, I felt as though the material does not go deeply enough into what really makes them tick. A lot of time is dedicated to juvenile Ann (Chloë Grace Moretz), who lives with her drug-addicted mother (Sheryl Lee), brother (James Hébert), and mother’s boyfriend (Stephen Graham), getting into all sorts of trouble with the police. While Ann is an important character because she fits the description of the type of girl the killer tends to abduct, I was much more interested when the camera follows the detectives and we watch what they do to find answers.

For the most part, “Texas Killing Fields” sets a good example of how more crime movies should strive to be. It is able to deliver the necessary darkness in its story without having to result to showing us every bit violence that we become inured or desensitized.

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