Friday, October 14, 2011

Ami Canaan Mann & Don Ferrarone's TEXAS KILLING FIELDS opens theatrically

Texas is back in the movie news again -- after last week's fiery Incendiary -- and once more, from the view we see of the state, it's a place you wouldn't want to visit. And certainly not reside in permanently. TEXAS KILLING FIELDS, the new film directed by Ami Canaan Mann (from a screenplay by Don Ferrarone, according to the press notes, that has been around for ten years now) is an artful, unsettling take on the way-overdone serial-killer format that manages to offset the ugliness (though, believe me, the film is plenty ugly) with enough humanity to make the experience more than worthwhile.

Ms Mann, shown at right, is the daughter of noted filmmaker Michael Mann. But before you mutter "more Hollywood nepotism," I think you ought to first view her film. She pulls us in initially via some great opening visuals: nature shots with a sense of menace to them, thanks in no small part to the atmospheric music credited to Dickon Hinchliffe. By the time we meet the many human beings that people the film, we're primed for the problematic.

From the cops who come to the investigation in a rather roundabout manner -- played by Sam Worthington (above, left), Jeffrey Dean Morgan (above, right) and

Jessica Chastain (above) to possible suspects like the tatooed creep played very well by Jason Clarke (below), there's no one here with a lock on "hero" -- though Mr. Morgan comes closest to the prize.

Everyone in sight, including the wonderful Chloë Grace Moretz, below (who makes good on the promise shown in Kick-Ass, much better than she did in the fumbled American remake of Let the Right One In) is simply working through his/her own hell, while trying to do the job -- whether it's saving, killing, pimping or just surviving. We learn the stories of all these characters haltingly, as we move along, and we also slowly piece together the plot itself. Ms Mann and Mr. Ferrarone are not given to over-explaining, which makes the movie all that much more challenging.

The police work, as shown, is rough and tumble and sometimes simply on the wrong track, not unlike, I would guess, real police work. But very unlike what we see over and over on various TV series in which the good guys just seem to get it right -- while giving us more-than-ample exposition and explanation.

Here, we have several stories conflating and upending, in which families do some very unloving things and police must assume their most protective role. There are loose ends all over the place -- again, rather like life -- but where and when it counts, the filmmakers come through beautifully. The loveliest scene, a family dinner to which Ms Moretz is included manages to move us without coming close to jerking a tear; the finale, too, is clipped and barely verbal, but it tells us just what we need to know.

Ms Mann has coaxed or perhaps simply given her actors their rein, and by and large the film is full of crackerjack performances. Ms Chastain, above, with relatively short screen time, comes through once again. There is little, it would seem, that this actress cannot do. Mr Morgan, below, is indelible in his decency, courage and confusion. Only Mr. Worthington, shown at bottom, can't quite manage to loosen up enough to let us see much of what might be going on inside him. This works to some extent because we understand that this is why his relationship with Ms Chastain's character (yes, they were an item) came to naught. Still, I wish this guy, as an actor, was not so continually closed up.

In the supporting cast -- really, the entire movie seems like a large ensemble piece -- each role is handled well, especially those of the actors who play Ms Moretz's family members (Sheryl Lee, James Hébert and Stephen Graham) as well, as those who play characters in the extended black family, one of whom appears to be a prime suspect. Ms Mann's movie draws on documentary techniques, but of the artful sort (like this week's Bombay Beach) rather than the more standard stuff. Consequently her movie apes life a lot more closely than has done almost any other serial killer film I can can recall (including, in fact, Zodiac).

Texas Killing Fields is certainly not perfect, but it's an auspicious near-debut (Mann's first full-length film, Morning, appears to have hardly been seen, outside of Greece!), so she should be quite proud of her accomplishment. The movie (with a running time of 105 minutes), from Anchor Bay Films, opens today, October 14, in New York at the IFC Center and the AMC Empire 25.  According to the film's web site, it will be coming soon to Landmark theaters in the Los Angeles and Chicago areas, as well.

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