Ah the classic tale of mismatched partners.

Texas Killing Fields is the second feature directed by Ami Canaan Mann, daughter of my Michael Mann. My favorite director. It has some great moments, a bevy of fine performances, and little touches that remind me of Michael Mann’s sensibilities, but overall Texas Killing Fields isn’t going to light the world on fire. There are some nice surprises and the climax is effective and tense, but too much of the movie is spent meandering toward that climax, exploring subplots and minor characters in what registers as a sorry imitation of Michael Mann’s affinity with exactly that style of crime drama.

Whether you like police procedurals or not, this movie is a pretty good example of one and most of the classic elements are present. Two partners, local Texan Souder (Sam Worthington) and New Yorker Heigh (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) are investigating the recent murder of a young girl, one of the many claimed by the so-called Killing Fields outside of Texas City, Texas. When a body turns up in her jurisdiction, Souder’s ex-wife Pam (Jessica Chastain), herself a detective, calls on them for help which leads them through the seedy underbelly of the prostitution and grime which seems to be a bit of a thing in their corner of the state. Souder and Heigh make for a good team and are backed by their actors fairly well. Worthington is especially notable in that he is again capitalizing a bit on the promise he showed in a few scenes in Avatar (and nowhere else) and reaffirming the showing he gave in this year’s The Debt. Morgan is a totally credible actor, embodying the somewhat professorial persona of Heigh completely and giving a nuanced mentoring element to the relationship of the two men. That Souder is a bit of a firebrand and Heigh a soft touch Catholic also gives the film some great balance as it remembers to keep the focus on these two and never loses them in the investigation that makes up the plot. The best part of this characterization is how the film gradually shows that Souder’s attitude is a bit of a put-on, a construction that disguises a fairly by-the-book and principled guy. On the other hand, Heigh’s gentle, caring demeanor begins to erode as the case becomes more personal for him, as he gets more fed up with seeing girls wind up dead especially when one of them might be Little Anne (Chloe Moretz) a local, troubled kid he takes under his wing. This inversion adds a lot to the movie, setting up and paying off a lot of scenes that are tightly focused on how these guys are reacting to what’s going on around them. That focus is a decidedly Michael Mann (Mannian?) choice.

Although the focus is very much on Souder and Heigh, Jessica Chastain gets some of the best lines and action in the film (she pistol-whips a redneck IN HIS FACE) and everything kinda sizzles that little bit extra when she’s around. Unfortunately, the movie kept finding ways to dump her off somewhere while getting back to Souder and Heigh and their too-often-separate activities. Pam is probably the barely-restrained firebrand that Souder only plays at, and you can see (without any exposition) both why they might have gotten married in the first place and why it didn’t work out. The film wisely avoids wading into a subplot about them working their shit out or something, allowing their relationship to be part of the world and characters that allows us to infer details as we go.

Much more of a hardened badass than in The Debt even.

One of the film’s weaknesses, and perhaps the most glaring one, is the lack of focus on the crime itself and the perpetrators. We know pretty much when we meet him that Rhino, (a vaguely menacing Stephen Graham) is probably the guy they’re after. However, he isn’t in the film much and doesn’t really register as a guy that they’d have a hard time catching. He isn’t especially bright or creative and while it may be realistic that the police follow other leads and take their time figuring it out, it deflates some of the momentum that should have been steadily building throughout the film.

Part of the issue is that the film is really about two pairs of murderers. One pair is a couple of pimps and the other is Rhino and Eugene (James Hebert), his slow-witted partner. The movie could have and should have spent as much time with the Rhino and Eugene as with Rule (Jason Clarke) and Levon (Jon Eyez), especially if they planned to hinge the climax on the former pair. They are present, sure, but the movie only pits them against the cops directly once before the climax and both times in a sort of chaotic way that leaves no time for confrontation. Maybe this is again an attempt to register an authenticity about how random real investigations can be, but it does take away at a sense of dramatic satisfaction. Still, all these actors are pretty good with Jason Clarke imbuing some real pathos and menace in Rule, the only one who gets away.

Unfortunately, there are no chases or gunfights to rival Michael Mann’s in Texas Killing Fields but then again, not necessarily the right type of movie for that.

Though it is far from perfect, Texas Killing Fields will slip under the radar and wind up being underseen and potentially underrated. Most of the problems are script problems, probably a result of trying to get as close as possible to whatever “true events” the film is based on. The whole thing would have been better if more time was given to the actors to stick together on-screen and act up a storm. There’s a weird tendency to split people up while they investigate, have downtime, etc which, while realistic maybe, has the same destructive effect on the balance of dramatic tension and overall end-game satisfaction as the handling of the villains does. With a better, more fleshed-out script and a longer run time, I could easily see Texas Killing Fields going down as 2011’s Gone Baby Gone. There’s the potential for much of what made that movie so very great but too much of it is wasted, ignored, or misdirected for this to be anything other than solid.

Except for that climax I mentioned. When Souder finally zeroes in on Rhino and Eugene, the next 10 or so minutes are pretty damn good and elevate the movie. Especially the way the demise of these assholes goes down and Souder’s role in it all. There’s a great understanding and manipulation of characterization in this film and it’s the best element, brought to completion (and a significant amount of satisfaction) in this scene and, to a lesser extent, the ending right after.

This screenshot might give something away for smart/observant people!

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