Thursday, December 15, 2011

Texas Killing Fields

It's hard not to like this movie based on that poster. The lightning, the starkness of the fields, the intense glares in each actor's eyes, the "Produced by Michael Mann" text. It's going to be hard to judge this one because I'm walking into it thinking that I'm going to love it, based solely on that poster. Of course, I watch every movie with the hope that it's going to be my new favourite movie, that it will supplant Indiana Jones and The Bourne Ultimatum. This film has a lot of the ingredients to possibly change things up in my film hierarchy. It's directed by Michael Mann's daughter, it stars Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Sam Worthington, two good actors.

Set in Texas City, Texas, Worthington and Morgan are two homicide officers who are on the trail of a serial killer or killers, who are abducting women and killing them out in the badlands, in the fields. Chloe Grace Moretz plays a little girl from a impoverished family who wanders the streets and Morgan feels protective of her. Jessica Chastain plays Worthington's ex-wife and a cop in another town, where girls are also going missing.

The opening scene of this movie features beautiful stark imagery of the impoverished conditions these people face, the racial issues and the social inequality faced by them. This is a small town, one without sidewalks, where little boys ride bikes down the street at 11 o'clock at night. Mann shoots all this with the same quick shots of establishment, with the grainy digital eye her father used in Collateral. It evokes a sense of desolation and of dead-ends. These men aren't going anywhere in their shitty jobs, just drink and whores. Even an older peace officer, a friend of Worthington's character's dad, is essentially a functioning alcoholic with a badge.

As the plot slowly builds, with each piece being put in place, the audience is given little sketches of the two main characters. Worthington, alone and sitting on the floor, feeding his dog canned food. Morgan, a family man, praying and cuddling in bed with his wife. However it is Morgan that is inexorably drawn into the killing fields, the place so desolate and so empty that even the Native Americans won't go into it, according to Worthington. He keeps trying to tell Morgan to stay out of the fields, figuratively speaking of course, but this is a cop movie. Morgan must go through the Hero's Journey and reach the Underworld.

Here's a handy chart of the Hero's Journey.

The helper is Worthington's character who guides him through Texas City, Morgan's adopted town. It is the fields where Morgan's death and rebirth will occur. He has crossed the metaphorical threshold of law-abiding and enforcing, God-fearing man into a world of blurred distinctions between following the letter of the law and getting shit done. When he finally reaches the fields, the killing fields, the dark abyss of his own soul and even Texas's soul, he returns for his atonement and the return to the status quo.

Yes, Texas Killing Fields takes on mythic qualities. The fields are imbued with a sense of the epic, of the darkness and of the eternal. Mann shoots the fields in blue, a colour of death, and has thunder and lightning crash over them. The fields themselves become more than a place, but a symbol, like Chinatown does in the titular film noir.

However, unlike Chinatown, Texas Killing Fields does not benefit from a stellar Robert Towne script. The dialogue in this film is mildly clunky, with Worthington's character helpfully telling Morgan and the audience that Morgan's gone over the edge. The cops sort of speak like cops are expected to, and the Texan young men and women speak with the same drawl and the same emptiness. Despite the dialogue issues, the script takes an uneven line for the Hero's Journey. Mann uses a bit of misdirection to try and fool the audience, but anybody who has seen a movie in their life will be able to guess the ending.

The screenplay feels artificial, especially since it maps onto the grid of the Hero's Journey fairly well, but even then, Texas Killing Fields seems to have a sense of authenticity. It wasn't even filmed in Texas (Louisiana, to be honest) but it feels like Texas, like the Southern states where everything is hot and everything is slow because it's too hot to move fast. Mann even borrows from Peter Berg, one of Michael Mann's ardent followers, and uses a sort of Explosions in the Sky style soundtrack, similar to Friday Night Lights. Both those two things are from Texas.

Mostly, it's Mann's competent direction that saves Texas Killing Fields. It's well shot, a mixture of documentary feel and inventive camera work. The car chase near the end of the film is extremely well shot, with the audience being able to follow the action and the geography of the location perfectly. There's a couple action scenes that are shot just perfectly, with a sense of cold-blooded quickness and reality, not the nonsense John Woo crap from the late nineties.

This is a good movie. I may seem somewhat dismissive because of its adherence to the Hero's Journey, but it actually kind of makes me like it more. If only the dialogue was a little bit better. Hopefully Mann directs at a quicker pace than her father. I'm more than excited to see her next film.

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