Texas Killing Fields is the feature directorial debut of Ami Canaan Mann, who is the daughter of Michael Mann (Heat, Collateral). Normally, one might bury that lede, lest the charges of nepotism overshadow the result of her efforts, but the promotional materials have all but made that the banner headline, so what the hell. In all fairness, her old man's influence isn't hard to spot; the picture's got wall-to-wall music, up-close digital photography, and a stripped-down, no-nonsense storytelling style. What she doesn't yet have is the ability to shape those elements into a tight, coherent package. That'll come, I suppose.
The setting is Texas City, Texas; the story is "inspired by true events." Texas City detectives Souder (Sam Worthington) and Heigh (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) are working a homicide, an underage prostitute who may be one of a series of pretty young woman murdered and dumped in Texas City or in the nearby fields of the title. Those fields are outside of their jurisdiction, though Souder's ex-wife (Jessica Chastain), a sheriff's deputy, is asking for their help finding a missing girl who she's pretty sure will turn up there.
Souder is a local boy and Heigh is a transplant from New York, though the story thankfully begins with their partnership well-entrenched, letting us piece their backstory together. Heigh is the glad-hander, though he feels an attachment to this case that's presumably attached to a failure back in New York; "What if I can't stop this one either?" he asks his wife (Annabeth Gish). That residual guilt also drives his concern for little Annie Sliger (Chloe Grace Moretz), the pre-teen daughter of a less-than-admirable mom (Sheryl Lee). Souder is more of a Bud White character; whether one would actually want to be is partner is questionable, since he seems to spend most of his time yelling and losing his shit.
Mann is skilled at generating tension; we spend the whole movie uneasily watching Moretz perched on the edge of danger, and the inevitable conclusion of that run-up is snappily executed. A climactic car chase is tense and scary as well, though the choreography (both before and during) is clumsy--we don't get a clear sense of who is where, and why. (The following scene, between the two key criminals, is badly compressed, giving us less than half of the dialogue we'd need to make what happens convincing.)
But Mann has a sure hand with her performers--Morgan is quietly effective, Grace is expectedly strong, and this is (by leaps and bounds) the best work Sam Worthington has done. The picture's got atmosphere to burn, both in terms of presentation (Dickon Hinchliffe's score does much of the heavy lifting) and placement (several performers, particularly the woman at the first crime scene, feel like residents who wandered in). And there are several standout sequences: a terrifying attack in a woman's home, or a late scene of Souder smoking the killers out by turning them on each other.
The feel of Texas Killing Fields is so often right and the performers are so convincing that we're prone not to notice how infrequently the pieces actually fit together--how the parallel climaxes slam up against each other, how the ex-wife subplot is a dud, how the ending cops out on a genuinely surprising turn. So it goes. Mann has a good eye and a sure hand with performers. Once she can tell a story, she'll be unstoppable.