Sunday, April 26, 2015

Tuesday's Overlooked Film: Texas Killing Fields (dir. Ami Canaan Mann, 2011)

Ami Canaan Mann’s Texas Killing Fields went nowhere commercially, despite the connection to Mann’s father Michael Mann (who is listed as a producer). It was barely released and only grossed $45,000 domestically; it received poor reviews when it was reviewed at all. And yet, although it is not a great movie, it is a very good one, and I believe it was thoroughly misunderstood. Although not quite at the level of Zodiac or Memories of Murder as an elliptical police procedural about a creepy chain of killings, it is nearly as original as those two great films.

Commenters, both professional and amateur, complained that Texas Killing Fields is unclear and confusing, although some did note the rich, layered Texas small-town atmosphere (Mann actually shot on location in Louisiana). Certainly, it is not a transparent piece. Chunks of exposition are withheld. We have to puzzle out the backstory. Relationships are not clear at first. A fair number of Sam Worthington’s lines are mumbled indistinctly (in a quite convincing Texas drawl). Various elements of the plot turn out to be completely unrelated to each other, and some of them just dribble off the edge of the film. There is no neat wrap-up that ties everything together.

I submit that all of this is done on purpose by Mann and screenwriter Donald F. Ferrarone, and that one of the movie’s major stylistic influences is Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller, which Pauline Kael famously praised for exactly the narrative and stylistic choices that Texas Killing Fields is attacked for. Apparently making those choices today is not OK, unless you are a big enough name (Terrence Malick, Paul Thomas Anderson) to get away with it.

If I were Ami Canaan Mann, I think I would be very frustrated that my intentions were not noticed, and my film dismissed as not worthy of attention. Maybe she should have gone for a pure art-house approach, without the infusion of commercial elements such as a car chase (although, those elements are quite well handled). Then the film probably couldn’t have gotten financed, though.

Texas Killing Fields was originally slated to be directed by Danny Boyle, and Mann was brought in as a replacement, although you wouldn’t guess it. Her handling of the material seems personal. In one sense, it is not surprising that the conventionally-minded would not “get” what she is up to here, since the commercial elements that allow the film to get made can mislead some viewers into thinking that Texas Killing Fields is trying and failing to be a “movie-movie” thriller.

On the other hand, grounding in the auteur theory is supposed to allow more sophisticated viewers to discern individual artistic styles in ostensibly commercial movies – that’s what the theory is for, right? We know that a genre film is going to display certain tropes, and although we look at them, we also look beyond them. But apparently some film enthusiasts can only pull this off when the film-as-object is comfortably in the past, and cannot manage it when it’s a new film right under their noses. 

We should be getting all kinds of auteurist analyses of the underbrush of contemporary film production – straight-to-DVD projects, “amateur” and mumblecore films, stuff that only gets aired at a few smaller festivals. But I see very little of that sort of critical work being done. Most reviews linked at the IMDB are simplistic thumbs-up thumbs-down reactions (that’s the bad side of Roger Ebert’s influence), rather than hardcore criticism. I am seldom bowled over by the freshness or unexpectedness of these reviewers’ “takes.” I seldom see detailed argumentation that proceeds on a set of aesthetic principles.

The acting in Texas Killing Fields is sensational up and down the line. Although Sam Worthington’s hot-headed cop may appear to be a somewhat clichéd character initially, the irony is that his supposedly calm, centered partner, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, turns out to be far more of a hot-head, a dangerously obsessive guy. Worthington does the best performing I have seen from him, and inhabits his character physically, with great exactitude. But although Worthington is top-billed, it is really Morgan’s movie, and he impresses as a powerhouse presence here. The contrast between him at 6’2” and Worthington at 5’10” seems several inches greater than that, and the troubled friendship between the two men, who may love each other without even liking each other, is one of the best cop relationships on film, all the more so for being unemphatically handled.

As Worthington’s ex-wife and a commanding cop in her own right, Jessica Chastain is so authentic that you want a few more scenes for her. In an almost wordless villainous role, the versatile Jason Clarke is frighteningly edgy (and in fact is often at the edge of the frame, or of our ability to see him – he slides quickly by, a slippery eel). Stephen Graham impresses in his small lowlife role, as well, but then Graham always impresses - he and Clarke are two of the best unheralded actors in movies and television today.

And as a young girl who has been dealt the worst possible start in life, Chloe Grace Moretz, who was only 13 years old when the film was shot, recalls another great actress at that age, Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver – that’s heady company. Without her, the movie would be nowhere near as moving as it is; with her, the beautifully handled final scene carries an extra punch.

My refraining from plot summary is deliberate. Texas Killing Fields is designed to make the viewer work, and each should do that work for themself.

1 comment:

  1. Well, "auteur" theory tends to blather anyway, as it overhypes the director at the expense of all the other collaborators on and off set...albeit the original CAHIERS folks, I gather, where attempting to do quite the opposite, and yet didn't manage to pipe up too much at the latter-day misconstruction.

    A striking look in the stills. I'll be seeking it out.