It might be unfair to read an artist’s work on the basis of her lineage, but Ami Canaan Mann is asking for it. Her sophomore effort, “Texas Killing Fields,” lives and breathes the hard-crime oxygen of the movies commonly associated with her father, Michael Mann. The younger Mann goes through the motions of a gritty murder mystery with plenty of technical proficiency but only a modicum of soul. The Mann touch is not only in the DNA of the director but in her movie, which inadvertently makes the case that atmosphere is more hereditary than innovation.
Michael Mann’s stylishly dark cops-and-robbers dramas, including “Heat” (which his daughter worked on as a teenager) and “Public Enemies,” treat the genre with an elegant touch, giving pulp material to a quieter, novelistic feel. In “Texas Killing Fields,” Ami Canaan Mann attempts to emulate that tradition with mixed results. Working from Don Ferrarone’s screenplay, she ably crafts the feel of backwoods corruption in Texas City, where an ominous murderer has been offing young women and leaving their corpses in the remote network of bayous indicated by the movie’s title.
By surveying various disconnected lives in an opening sequence, Mann shows a willingness to push beyond the familiar procedural routine and put the town in closeup. It’s a dreary place: In addition to a cookie-cutter pair of officers on the killer’s tail, the ensemble includes Chloe Grace Moretz as the adolescent child of a broken home that’s constantly under the scrutiny of Officer Brian Heigh (Jefrey Dean Morgan). A solemn and religious man always at odds with his responsibilities, he routinely clashes with his no-nonsense partner, Mike Souder (Sam Worthington). And then there’s their measured colleague, Pam Stall (Jessica Chastain, in a tough counterpoint to her many softer roles), who often negotiates between their extreme reactions.
But she can only do so much. From an early interrogation scene, it’s clear that Brian and Mike inhabit the good-cop-bad-cop routine not by choice but by nature. However, the derivative characters don’t hold down the potential of “Texas Killing Fields.” Instead, it suffers from periodic lulls. The sleepy town has secrets to hide, but Mann doesn’t generate enough interest to make it worth unraveling them. The washed-out color scheme and handheld camerawork create air quotes around the material, anxiously grabbing for the deeper substance that fails to manifest beneath the routine.
Playing by the rules, “Texas Killing Fields” piles up the clichés. Brian and Mike hone in on the likely suspects at an early stage, then get personal when the killer starts leaving them voicemails. A couple of shoot-outs ensue and the climax polishes off all loose ends. The entire movie plays like a single, prolonged sigh.
There are isolated incidents that generate authentic suspense, particularly a tensely staged break-in, but Mann can’t find the distinction among these many familiar motions. The single unique idea is the actual killing fields, which Ferrarone describes in near-supernatural terms to broaden their symbolic value. A no-man’s land where death always lurks in every shadow, the fields represent some kind of absolute evil, the nature of which never becomes clear. “They’re infected or something,” someone says — by what, we don’t know, but the likely culprit is Michael Mann.
criticWIRE grade: C
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Having received mixed reviews after its premiere at the Venice Film Festival last month, “Texas Killing Fields” opens this week in several cities through Anchor Bay Entertainment. Despite some decent performances, the lack of A-list stars, mixed reviews and derivative material will likely result in less-than-stellar box office returns.