Friday, October 14, 2011

Based on True Crimes: Texas Killing Fields

They like their justice swift in the Lone Star State (and God bless them for it), but it will take a transplanted New York cop to break open a heinous serial killer case. Inspired by the gruesome history of the marshland outside Texas City, TX, a notorious dumping ground for corpses, a somewhat fictionalized pair of lawmen show their grit, warts-and-all, in Ami Canaan Mann’s Texas Killing Fields (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

Nobody wants to face up to what goes on in that swamp, least of all the Texas City police officers charged with investigated it. However, Brian Heigh is new around these parts. Out of a reasonable sense of duty, he agrees to help Pam Stall, a cop from a neighboring jurisdiction, investigate a series of disappearances linked to the marsh.

His tightly wound partner Mike Souder advises against getting pulled into an open-ended morass. It also hardly helps that Stall is his ex. Heigh and Souder have very different approaches to their job, but eventually they get on the same page. Unfortunately, by that point time is running out for the latest abductee, whom the cops have a particularly personal interest in.

Frankly, the procedural element to Fields is fairly standard stuff. A bit messy, the screenplay leaves a major side-plot largely unresolved. However, the two leads really deliver the goods. Indeed, based on his work here and in The Debt, it is time to forget the big awful blockbusters like Avatar and become a believer in Sam Worthington. He is fantastic as Souder, viscerally intense and unpredictable as a live wire. While he plays the easy-going understated cop (isn’t that usually a Southern thing?), Jeffrey Dean Morgan is genuinely compelling as the slow-burning Heigh. Though largely underutilized, at least Jessica Chastain’s Stall has a cool interrogation scene (that not surprisingly has been released as a teaser).

Mann (yes, the daughter of Fields producer Michael Mann) nicely exploits the lonesome Texas backdrop and cranks up the tension down the stretch like an old pro. Yet, one thing that really distinguishes the film is its sympathetic portrayal of Heigh’s Catholicism. As the body count mounts, he has something of a crisis of faith, but not in a way that leads him to question his beliefs. Rather, he struggles to find his proper path amid the chaos or what his wife suggests might be his calling. Not only does this humanize Heigh, it provides some light in a very dark film. 

Nobody will mistake Fields for a buddy-cop movie, but Worthington and Morgan are compulsively watchable as they dispense some justice. Recommended rather enthusiastically for those who want strong character studies in their crime dramas, Fields opens this Friday (10/14) in New York at the IFC Center.