Television has made it hard for movies like Texas Killing Fields. A better-than-average police procedural rooted in the not-always-pretty world found at the edge of the Texas bayou, the film tells a tight, contained crime story, filling the edges with the shaggy details of police work and life on the underside of Texas City, Texas. Without The Wire and its like as a point of comparison, Texas Killing Fields might seem the natural heir to a gritty ’70s cop drama. But with great contemporary TV around, it seems strangely incomplete. We get to know the detectives at the film’s core, how they work, what drives them, and the place they’re sworn to protect. And then the film ends after telling only one story, which seems kind of odd these days.
At least any frustration comes from the way one installment seems insufficient. Director Ami Canaan Mann (daughter of Michael Mann, who produced) doesn’t have the strongest interest in efficient storytelling. Working from a script by Donald Ferraone, a former DEA agent, she leaves the details murky and the relationships sketchy, but creates an intriguing-enough atmosphere to compensate for what’s missing. As a driven cop, Sam Worthington doesn’t nail the accent, but he delivers a more compelling performance than in any of his high-profile lead roles. With some assistance from a fellow-cop ex-wife (the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain), Worthington works with partner Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Watchmen) to track down a killer of young girls. The investigation leads them to check out a pair of pimps spoken of in hushed tones by those who share their neighborhood. Other business takes them into the broken home of Chloë Grace Moretz, who’s forced to leave the house while her mother (Sheryl Lee) turns tricks for local workers, including an intimidating john played by Boardwalk Empire’s Stephen Graham (looking a lot like Craig Finn from The Hold Steady).
Atmosphere and small touches go a long way here. When Morgan hunches to pray over the body of a girl as the rain starts, Worthington looks on without comment, but his face offers a map of mixed feelings. Mann handles quiet moments and tense interrogations well and action scenes even better, particularly a chase scene through some run-down back streets and the climactic trip to the desolate parts of the bayou that give the film its title. The only trouble: With a focus squarely on a case that isn’t that unusual and intriguing, and only half-developed characters, Texas Killing Fields feels more like a promising pilot than a feature film. It doesn’t conclude so much as dead-end.