There is an actual stretch of highway in south Texas that you don't want to break down on or even live remotely near if you're an unaccompanied lady. Dubbed "The Killing Fields," the land near Houston on I-45 has been a dumping ground for numerous bodies in cases that mostly remain unsolved. It's creepy enough to give you shivers on a hot day, but unfortunately, the film fails to evoke much of that same feeling. Although it is atmospheric and adequately depressing visually, the script gives the talented cast very little to work with.
Mike (Sam Worthington) and Brian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) are police detectives in a small town in Texas, dealing with run-of-the-mill issues like domestic violence and gangs. But every once in a while, a girl goes missing. Seasoned professionals in the area always seem to know that her body will end up in the mysterious tract of land that acts as a kind of magnet for misery, cheerily nicknamed The Killing Fields. Brian is consumed with solving the murders even though it's outside his jurisdiction, and soon the perpetrator hits too close to home.
Aside from the general plot feeling very familiar, the film does a decent job of not over-talking situations. It allows the audience to connect the dots themselves about the character's relationship to each other and what they are thinking. In fact, it seems so committed to this style that it swings far to the other side of the spectrum, which left me feeling very disconnected from the characters. From watching Jeffrey Dean Morgan pray over victims in body bags, you gather that he's religious, but have no sense of who he is as a person other than that. His partner is frustrated with him and spends his nights banging a tennis ball against the wall of his house, but aside from his divorce from Det. Stall (Jessica Chastain), we have no other reason to like/dislike him as a character. Ultimately it leaves too much unexplained.
The film does paint a very vivid picture of the world surrounding such a grim place. It telegraphs sticky humidity, loneliness, and hopelessness, perhaps due to the undersaturated tones and abundance of cement. Although this helps distract from the fact that the film is filled with good guys I am not rooting for, it doesn't completely erase my indifference. In fact, it's so effective at being a bummer that I felt the life melting out of me as I watched.
(Un)lucky for us, the film's biggest problem is a complete lack of tension. There is some serious killing going on in them thar fields, yet I never felt a sense of urgency or danger. I know that real life isn't like an episode of Law and Order--I imagine that the witness-questioning and neighborhood-canvassing they do in this film is very realistic, but it lacked energy and had trouble holding my interest. Even during the climax of the movie, I still watched passively, knowing that those crazy kids would work everything out in the end. Or not. It didn't really matter. Overall, Texas Killing Fields deserves credit for evoking a definite mood, but perhaps just not the right one to make this a gripping thriller.