Attempting to blaze your own path as an artist is hard enough, but for the artist who must follow a famous relative, I can't begin to imagine the struggle to find your own voice as a filmmaker while fighting unreasonable audience expectations. Case in point, the Coppola clan: following Francis Ford Coppola himself, daughter Sofia has made a career that seems to have peaked with "Lost in Translation," son Roman made a brilliant but largely unseen homage to 60s Italian sci-fi in "CQ," before disappearing from behind the camera, and nephews Nicolas and Christopher made "Deadfall" together, with the former likely tanking the latter's chance at being taken seriously (on a side note, if you've never seen Nic Cage in "Deadfall" fix that as soon as possible). The bottom line is at least in the case of Roman and Sofia, having a famous father simultaneously helps and hurts one career; one gets their work seen by the public far more quickly than most, but when that work isn't a perfect imitation of the elder Coppola's style, unfair criticism springs forth, which is something that hamstrings Ami Mann's "Texas Killing Fields," a mild crime-thriller that very much feels like an imitation of her father, Michael's genre defining catalogue of films.
Based loosely on true events, "Texas Killing Fields" gathers up a very notable cast of actors to explore a series of horrific crimes in a quiet Texas town; on paper it's a tired concept and truth be told, the script contains just enough substance to keep the story moving, leaving the cast to shoulder the weight of making you care about the characters in the first place and Mann's direction to keep the tension as high as possible. Holding up the lead roles are detectives Mike Sounder (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) a former big city homicide investigator and his young, but already grizzled partner, Brian Heigh (Sam Worthington), a town native and ex-husband of fellow detective Pam Stall (Jessica Chastain). To Mann's credit, she keeps the safe route of making the story about Pam and Brian's failed marriage off the table until it becomes impossible to avoid as events of a professional nature force the two to pool resources. The clever twist is the addition of Chloe Grace Moretz as Anne Sigler, the wayward daughter of the town's more "male friendly" denizen, Lucie (a nearly unrecognizable Sheryl Lee). Unfortunately as the surrogate father-daughter relationship between Mike and Anne begins to prove interesting, Mann reminds us this is a movie about a serial killer.
The film can't fairly be called unfocused, but it easily earns the moniker of undeveloped, with Mann more concerned with giving small town Southern life the same gritty feel that her father gives the streets of Los Angeles. For the most part it works and Mann stages some very intense chase sequences, especially in the second and third acts; the problem though, is many of the plot threads that precipitate these brief moments of tension are lazily thrown on screen and quickly pulled down, often with no real resolution. Under even closer scrutiny the titular killings are just as haphazardly thrown together and you realize the sad truth that the very likable actors playing our heroes are the reasons why you care about anything happening in the movie in the first place. Yes, even much-maligned Sam Worthington finds solid footing here and despite another shaky American accent, he does his job more than admirably, while Jessica Chastain solidifies that 2011 wasn't just the year of Fassbender.
I was a bit shocked to learn "Texas Killing Fields" was not Ami Mann's feature-length debut; it's in fact her second film in a decade; with such a fixation on visual storytelling and good use of ones actors, Mann shows tremendous promise, but hopefully her next film will have a much tighter and more polished script, as "Texas Killing Fields" winds up a strong "one-and-done" mystery that barely squeaks into the "good" category on the merits praised above. It's a noble attempt at reinventing the wheel that soon abandons all originality for a safe but unremarkable minor victory.
The 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer presents "Texas Killing Fields'" strong visual look with skill and precision. With a lot of scenes taking place in shadowy swamplands and fields, the contrast packs a strong punch, revealing necessary details while keeping black levels natural. Detail is on the upper end of the quality spectrum, never wavering, as are the colors, which capture the locale's hot and depressed look admirably.
The Dolby Digital English 5.1 audio track is an equally solid offering, although dialogue is dialed back a little ways in comparison to the more punctuated action beats. Surrounds are used to great effect, lending atmosphere to the film at all the right moments. A Spanish mono track is also included. English SDH and Spanish subtitles are included.
Apart from the film's theatrical trailer, the lone extra is a low-key but still interesting commentary track from director Mann and writer Donald F. Ferraone.
"Texas Killing Fields" shows that while director Ami Mann is not afraid to borrow on her father's visual eye, she falls short in delivering an engaging story and putting her own imprint on the finished product. The film lives and dies by solid performances from a great cast, but the shaky resolution is a finish lined cross finished in a race that starts as a sprint before settling on a nice leisurely jog. Recommended.