Texas Killing Fields: Drenched in the Stench of Death

Avatar's Sam Worthington and every film's Jessica Chastain star in a creepily atmospheric true-crime thriller

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Gusmano Cesaretti / Anchor Bay Films / Everett

Sam Worthington stars in a scene from Texas Killing Fields.

Some places just seem cursed. In 1947, Texas City, Texas, was the site of one of the worst industrial disasters in U.S. history. In the port of the Galveston Bay town, a ship carrying ammonium nitrate exploded, leveling the entire dock area, causing a 15-foot tidal wave, destroying more than a thousand buildings and homes and killing at least 500 people. Over the succeeding decades, another specter haunted Texas City: in an abandoned oil field, police often found the corpses of young women. More often, the bodies were not discovered in this sump of a bayou; the area, known as the killing fields, simply swallowed up the bodies.

“It’s infected or somethin’,” a man says of the bayou in Texas Killing Fields, an atmospheric thriller based on police investigations of the deaths. Producer Michael Mann — whose career is so steeped in crime lore (Thief, Manhunter, Heat and Public Enemies on the big screen, Police Story, Miami Vice and Crime Story on TV) that it reads like a 35-year rap sheet — commissioned former DEA agent Dan Ferrarone to write the screenplay. Danny Boyle, once slated to direct, called the script “so dark it would never get made.” Boyle went off to make the more chipper Slumdog Millionaire, and the producer gave the job to his daughter, Amy Canaan Mann. Applying Dad’s directorial style of sweaty closeups, prowling telephoto shots and an ominous electronic score (by ex-Tindersticks member Dickon Hinchliffe), the younger Mann has dished out a meaty drama with familiar ingredients from the Law & Order kitchen but a distinctively bitter taste.

Detectives Mark Souter (Sam Worthington) and Brian Heigh (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) are pursuing the case of a young woman found murdered in a gas station. Brian, an import from New York City, is the sensitive one, saying prayers over the mutilated body. On his office wall is a map of the killing fields and photos of all the missing girls in the county. The empathy on Brian’s mournful face suggests that, if he could just find the killer of this one victim, he could somehow expiate the misery of all of them. Mark, a local boy, wears the cynicism of a someone steeped in the town’s crime and corruption. Like another cop who told his old partner, “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown,” Mark is reluctant to set foot in the infamous inferno. “This place ain’t nothin’ but chaos,” he says to Brian. “Your God don’t even come here.” Besides, the killing fields are outside their immediate jurisdiction; the detective responsible for that area is Pam Stall (Jessica Chastain), a take-charge gal who was once Mark’s wife.

Content to follow the police-procedural handbook, the movie antes up the usual suspects: the pimp Levone (Jon Eyez) and his criminal cohort, a tattooed dude named Rule (Jason Clarke). There’s also the furtive oddball Rhino (Stephen Graham, better known as Al Capone on Boardwalk Empire), a bespectacled yahoo who catches attention from the moment he asks Mark, “What’d I do?” — not just because his tone tells you he’s been grilled by cops many times before and is obviously guilty of something, but because his resemblance to Russell Crowe as the mousy beans-spiller of Michael Mann’s The Insider cues the viewer to keep a wary eye him. These three malefactors are acquaintances of the local madam Lucie (Sheryl Lee, long ago the late Laura Palmer of Twin Peaks), whose daughter Anne (Chloü Grace Moretz) is approaching her teens, making her old enough to become the next victim. A tip for at-risk girls in Texas City: at night, don’t walk home alone past the killing fields.

It’s a given that Brian will spiritually adopt this lost girl and, when she goes missing, pursue her with the paternal obsessiveness that John Wayne lavished on Natalie Wood in The Searchers. The movie boasts many cinematic antecedents, perhaps too many familiar situations. But these scenes often have a creepy resonance — as in the attack on a young mother in her bedroom by a hooded intruder, or the voice message Brian and Mark receive, whose source is the cell phone of a murder victim.

Anyway, the solid cast plays this material as if it were brand new. Worthington, taking a break from blockbusters before shooting the sequels to Avatar and Clash of the Titans, is the steely foil to Morgan, a sad-eyed Javier Bardem lookalike who makes a tender humanity seem the highest form of machismo. Chastain and Moretz, who between them have appeared in every single recent American movie (correction: only 13 films in the past two years), provide exemplars of the smart, sexy woman and the beautiful, imperiled child.

But all the characters — the heroes, the villains, the victims and the other sickly shades — tread through the narrative as if they are drenched in the stench of death. In an eye-blink the place could explode around them, or the dank ground could consume them. That’s a Texas City curse: more corpses for the killing fields.