On the outskirts of a small Texan town, homicide detective Mike Souder (Sam Worthington) and his partner Brian Heigh (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), recently transferred from New York, find the body of a murdered girl. Meanwhile across town, Mike’s ex-wife, ballsy, resourceful sheriff Pam Stall (Jessica Chastain) discovers a second victim. The detectives realise they are dealing with a prolific serial killer stashing bodies around the vast, near-impenetrable marsh area locals call “the Killing Fields.” Although the swampland crime scenes are outside their jurisdiction, Heigh is unable to turn his back on the gruesome murders, especially after a phone call from the killer replays the death throes of the last victim. The investigation unearths several suspects all of whom seem to be circling around troubled teenager, Little Ann Sliger (Chloë Grace Moretz).
Loosely inspired by actual events involving multiple murders committed around a stretch of land between Houston and Galveston, Texas Killing Fields treads an awkward line between hard-boiled fiction and attempted authenticity. It is an ambitious thriller, often genuinely unsettling both in terms of visceral impact and underlining themes, yet ultimately makes the mistake of confusing ambiguity with sloppy storytelling. Originally Danny Boyle was set to direct but eventually backed away, claiming later that the story was likely too dark to ever reach the screen. Instead, the project passed into the hands of Ami Canaan Mann, daughter of the more famous Michael Mann who serves here as producer on her second feature film. Mann tells the story in an oddly evasive manner, which proves both haunting and frustrating in equal measure, stressing mood over action. One thing the film most definitely has going for it is a sweltering sense of dread. Working with cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh, Mann evokes memories of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1973) in her depiction of an overwhelmingly oppressive and nightmarish landscape that seems to consume both victims and the souls of those attempting to decipher its mysteries.
The film strikes a vaguely similar tone to another recent true crime story, Zodiac (2006) being equal parts thriller and character study ruminating on this existential idea of the titular killing fields as a place beyond logic and understanding. Mired not just in multiple murder but historical atrocities, the area dredges up dark personal memories for Mike but takes its most exacting psychological toll on sensitive family man Brian. In a direct challenge to his staunch Catholic faith, the subtext posits the killing fields as a place where God seemingly has no jurisdiction. Mann stages a memorably horrific sequence where a young mother is assaulted in front of her two year old daughter but by and large it is the film’s indefinable mood of unease and uncertainty that seeps under your skin.
Amidst a roster of great acting, with Sam Worthington giving his most commanding performance in a long time, Jessica Chastain (in her second pairing with Worthington after John Madden’s interesting but flawed Nazi hunter thriller The Debt (2011)) and Chloë Moretz equally outstanding and creepy character work from British actor Stephen Graham, it is Jeffrey Morgan who holds the film together even as the plot pulls in disparate directions, refusing to gel. Don Ferrarone’s screenplay throws up several suspects with multiple possibilities but even though an array of sub-plots go unresolved, the resolution still comes across too pat. David Lynch fans will appreciate the significant presence of Sheryl Lee, formerly Laura Palmer in that most iconic of small town murder mysteries, Twin Peaks.