Texas Killing Fields (2011) – Movie Review
Written by: Don F. Ferrarone
Directed by: Ami Canaan Mann
Staring: Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Sam Worthington, Jessica Chastain
Run time: 109 minutes
Genre: Crime, Drama
Official site: http://www.texaskillingfields.com
“Once in… there’s no way out”
Loosely based on real-life events this dark and gritty thriller follows local-born homicide Detective Mike Souder (Worthington) and his partner Detective Brian Heigh (Morgan), a cop transplanted from New York City, as they track a sadistic killer dumping his victim’s bodies in local swampland known as “The Killing Fields.”
Unable to turn his back on solving the gruesome murders despite his partner’s warnings and the fact that the crime scenes fall outside their jurisdiction, Heigh teams up with Souder’s ex-wife Pam Stall (Chastain), a detective in a neighboring precinct, in an effort to investigate the crimes. It doesn’t take long for them to garner the attention of the killer who changes the game plan and starts hunting the detectives, teasingly leaving potential clues behind at the crimes scenes but always managing to stay just one step ahead.
The bayou scenery is breathtakingly eerie, and the use of hand-held cameras for the opening shots sets the scene perfectly for a tense and haunting story. There are some fast-paced and brutal action scenes but for the most part it’s a slowish build of tension throughout the film towards the dramatic climax. The sense of helplessness and growing frustration from the detectives as the elusive killer taunts them is palpable and the awkward dynamic between the three, particularly Souder and Stall, is beautifully realistic. My only disappointment was that Worthington doesn’t really manage to pull off playing the bad-boy cop convincingly, especially when working alongside Morgan who brings an immensely realistic dangerous, bordering on out of control, increasingly desperate edge to Heigh who appears to be a generally compassionate family guy who just wants to help everybody.
Commissioned by Michael Mann in 2000, the screenplay was written by retired DEA agent Don Ferrarone who heard about the real murders that inspired this story while working on assignment in the area. Ferrarone became curious about the crime phenomenon and began asking around – he was directed to Texas City PD Detectives, Brian Goetschius and Mike Land (who were the models for Souder and Heigh) who had worked several of the Killing Fields’ cases. La Marque detective Pam Mitchell was the model for Chastain’s character.
The story behind the movie:
Since 1969 numerous girls and young women have disappeared from or been found murdered in a 50-mile area between Galveston and Houston, a stretch of land along the I-45 believed to be the bloodiest highway in America and sometimes referred to locally as a “highway to hell”. Reports of the number of victims vary widely: anything from thirty to just under sixty over the last forty-odd years. Due to the timespan of the murders, variations in MO and the physical differences between groups of victims police believe there may be more than one serial killer at work in the area. The youngest known victim was 9-years-old, the eldest was 57. A number of the murders remain unsolved, and some of the bodies of the missing have never been recovered. At least five bodies found in the area remain unidentified.
There are eleven police precincts which cover the length of the I-45 which contributed to the lack of progress in many of the cases due to delays in information sharing and the failure to realize there was a pattern to the disappearances/murders: 13-year old Krystal Baker, great-niece of Marilyn Monroe, went missing from Texas City in March 1996 and was found beaten, sexually assaulted and strangled dumped under an interstate bridge two hours away near the Louisiana border. Her body was actually found on the day she disappeared, but she would spend two weeks as a Jane Doe in the county morgue before being identified and linked back to Texas City. It took 16 years to bring Krystal’s killer to justice.
Director Ami Canaan Mann made this statement to the media when the movie was released on October 14, 2011:
“On the outskirts of a small town called Texas City, thirty minutes south of Houston, the bodies of just under sixty murder victims have been found. Some women, some girls. Some prostitutes. Some schoolchildren. All victims of different killers.
In the stacks of preliminary research that came with Don Ferrarone’s brilliant screenplay, I found a map attached to a local newspaper article. It showed the faces of the victims near where their bodies were found. Seventies Marsha Brady straight hair, eighties bangs, nineties streaks. Decades of girls waking up on the mornings of their last days, doing their makeup and hair, never knowing that the images they saw in the mirror would remain on a victims map I’d be staring at years later. Many of the photos are school photos. Eyes looking directly at the camera the way we’re told to smile during ‘picture day.’ Arranged as they are on that map, they’re a tapestry of beautiful ghosts, their eyes look right through you, asking for voice. And it is this reality, I believe, that pushed myself, cast and crew to try to tell this tough story in the most elegant way possible. How to tell their story? How to try to give voice to those whose voice has been taken?”
None of the actual cases from the area are directly mentioned in the movie, but despite this Cann and the rest of the cast and crew involved in this project have achieved what they set out to do: they’ve given these girls, these women a voice.
Rating: 5/5 Raging Nerds
“The Killing Fields” refers to a 25-acre patch of land approximately a mile from the I-45 known as the Calder Drive field. The bodies of four young women were found there over a seven year period.
Texas Equusearch, a volunteer mounted search and recovery team, was founded by Tim Miller, father of Laura Miller who was kidnapped and murdered in 1984 aged 16. She was the third victim to be found in the killing fields, 17-months after she disappeared. http://texasequusearch.org