[With today's DVD and Blu-ray release of Texas Killing Fields, we thought we'd re-run this interview from late last year with co-star Sam Worthington.]
The glossily-produced feature Texas Killing Fields has a hell of a lot of interesting ideas to tackle surrounding the years of murders around I-45 near Texas City, TX. That a stretch of land around that area's oil fields--the titular "killing fields"--could be so easily used as dumping grounds for a sickening number of victims; that so many of them were women and vulnerable; worse, that the (likely) many killers responsible for these crimes remain free to this day.
Within the framework of this case, the film contains ideas about justice, obsession, and faith, in a potent mix with an interesting cast that seems totally committed to the material. Unfortunately, it falters somewhat thanks to its too-brief running time and an occasionally creaky police procedural structure that undercuts much of the tension and the drama of the proceedings.
The film stars Sam Worthington as Mike Souder and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Brian Heigh, both Texas City homicide detectives investigating the murder of one young girl and the disappearance of another in an adjoining jurisdiction. I should note here that the movie is inspired by cases from the area and doesn't seek to portray the actual events, going so far as to move the action to the present day. Allowing for that, Texas Killing Fields is free to avoid trying to identify or present competing theories about any real killers and simply shine a light on these two crimes, laying out the information and allow the two detectives to follow it through, haunted by their own pasts and issues.
Heigh is an East Coast transplant and deeply religious man whose empathy for his victims seems to be wearing away at his sanity while Worthington's Souder is a ball of anger with a failed marriage behind him and no real identity outside of his job. Worthington actually based his performance on one of the real-life detectives who followed the case in the 60s and 70s, and during a recent roundtable interview I asked him what he was able to glean from the man his character was modeled after:
[It] was basically that no matter what the cost, you get the crime solved. He's out for justice, he doesn't need to have friends. It was actually a case of this guy was really a bear and a bull of a man, and he'd committed his life 100% to getting justice for criminals. And I really, really respected it because I could see that--it didn't pain him--it's a thing to commit your life so much to this harsh reality and this harsh world, and this harsh idea of bringing criminals to justice, and finding murderers and killers like a needle in a haystack. This guy, this is what he put his life on the line to do.
And part of it was, he said to me, "No matter what I do, no matter what happens, I want to get it done. I'm not going to pussyfoot around, I'm going to get the fucking crime solved." And that kind of forward-thinking attitude, we can see that in his character. We can think that he's arrogant or too bombastic. But it's just the pursuit of trying to get the bad guys. I respected that 100%.
What I got from that is Worthington sees that his character isn't necessarily about depth, but he understands how Souder is profoundly broken in some ways. And the actor actually nails that single-mindedness and bull-headed nature of his character. In fact, it's one of the strongest performances I've seen to date from the Australian native who hasn't clicked with me past roles. In a better movie, Detective Souder would have somewhere to go thematically. At the start, he has a bitter relationship with his ex-wife played by Jessica Chastain, another homicide detective whose jurisdiction covers the missing girl. He lives alone with his dog, he's quick to violence, and a complete and total mismatch with his partner, Heigh.
But by the end of Texas Killing Fields, his character remains unchanged and seemingly unaffected by the pretty heinous circumstances in which he and his partner get entangled.
Again, I think a lot of this has to do with the relative brevity of the movie at about 105 minutes. With a little over an hour and a half, there's not a lot of room to get invested in the characters save Chloë Moretz's Little Ann, a neglected little girl whose mother only notices her daughter she gets in the way of of the many parties she has with the men who pass through the house. The whole movie, this little girl has a target on her back and we know it's only a matter of time before she somehow becomes a victim.
I asked Worthington what his thoughts were on the preponderance of female victims in the real-life cases:
Well, typically when you look into a lot of murders, especially highway murders, a lot of them kill hitchhikers or "easy prey," and I don't use that term loosely. That's just the tragedy of the circumstances--that females are preyed upon more than guys. That's from the information that I discovered, anyway.
Little Ann is precisely that "easy prey," and I think there's a compelling thread to be followed there about the easy victimization of women in the area. And the movie seems to head in that direction a bit, showing a local shelter for young girls and the ways they try to protect each other and themselves. But again, not a lot is developed on this front, and by simply pushing the story towards a conventional whodunit, Texas Killing Fields spends so much time on the "who" of the killings that it never really addresses "why."