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‘Texas Killing Fields’

Mann's is hardly a debut feature to kill for

by Kaori Shoji

Having an iconic Hollywood filmmaker for a dad isn’t always a cool thing. The dad in question: Michael Mann, the guy who brought us such notable gangster tales as “Public Enemies,” produced the gritty, testosterone-infused “Heat” and has more than a dozen blockbusters to his name. Granted, Michael Mann may not have the cache of Francis Ford Coppola, but he is — in the words of Woody Allen — “in a place that counts.”

Sadly, the same cannot be said for Mann’s daughter Ami Canaan Mann, whose talent-rating is nowhere near that of Coppola’s daughter Sofia, and whose struggle to get where she wants to be is painfully apparent in her film “Texas Killing Fields.”

Produced by Mann Sr. and at first glance a scaled-down version of the kind of muscular, masculine homicide tale he loves to spin, “Texas Killing Fields” is in fact a quiet train wreck of a project. It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly went wrong: Ms. Mann assembled an effective cast consisting of charismatic teen it-girl Chloe Grace Moretz (“Let Me In,” “Hugo”), plus charismatic adult it-girl Jessica Chastain (“The Tree of Life”) and not-so-charismatic “Avatar” dude Sam Worthington.

He performs alongside Jeffrey Dean Morgan as one half of a homicide cop team in Texas. Morgan exudes a more interesting presence, and in some scenes seems on the verge of saying something exciting. Worthington, sans all the swank 3-D effects and CGI extravagance of “Avatar,” sort of sleepwalks through the story. Which is unfortunate, since their characters take it upon themselves to investigate the serial torturing/killing of local girls, so you might hope he’d at least be awake.

Detective Brian Heigh (Morgan), recently transplanted to Texas from New York, takes an interest in Little Ann, supposedly the town delinquent but actually a wandering teen who wants to get away from her boozy, man-crazy mom, and tries to get her off the streets at night. There’s a serial killer at large, who mutilates the bodies of his victims and dumps them in a nearby marsh, known to locals as “The Killing Fields.”

Brian’s cop partner, Mike Souder (Worthington), warns him not to get involved, since the murders didn’t happen in their precinct. But soon the pair are messing up the crime scenes and nosing around for clues. Not that they solve anything; at the pace they work, it could take a decade or two before they catch the killer.

Ms. Mann is into sepia tones, and adept at tinging the frames with a dusty, dry-blown hue that recalls her father’s 2006 sleeper hit “Miami Vice.” The right ingredients are there, but the end product comes out of the oven like an underdone TV dinner.

“Texas Killing Fields” marks Ms. Mann’s feature debut, and it shows. Like an oversize and unwieldy jacket, all the elements in the story seem a bad fit, sprawled out in one place or bunched together in another. Clues are mentioned, and then disappear into the void. Suspense builds up, only to fade out before the viewer can get properly scared.

Most damning of all is the fact that the centerpiece cop unit often seem totally bewildered by their jobs — like they skipped most of the classes in police school and are now unsure how to conduct themselves at a crime scene.

The two women in the story have a much stronger presence but don’t have much to work with. Moretz plays Little Ann with conviction, while Chastain’s homicide detective Pam Stall, who’s also working on the serial killer case (but apart from the guys), is tough and sexy but above all displays an almost frightening competence.

The film is inspired by real-life events, and the actual Killing Fields that stretch from Houston to Galveston is famed as the site of over 30 murders since 1969. A wet, desolate marshland that has never been developed or destroyed, the fields are, if nothing else, extremely atmospheric.

Mann deploys the location to full advantage, but unfortunately she doesn’t lavish the same attention on her characters. There’s plenty of potential, but the story is content to throw out the information and leave it at that. Mike grew up near the Killing Fields and is traumatized by a childhood spent looking after his alcoholic dad. Brian is clearly uncomfortable in the Deep South, but he doesn’t like to discuss what took him there or his past in Manhattan. Oh, and Pam just happens to be Mike’s ex, but they act like estranged siblings.

What remains, then, is the marshland. Under the sizzling Texas sun, it seems to wallow in its own menace, drenched in a malevolent fluid whose name you just don’t want to know. The movie ends, the lights go on and the Killing Fields are still there. Not a nice thought to take away.