Ami Canaan Mann says her second film as a director, "Texas Killing Fields," was inspired by her discovery of a map of the Houston area featuring the photos of nearly 60 female murder victims indicating where there bodies were found.
The film — screened Friday at the Venice Film Festival — is an elegant crime thriller drawing on actual murders haunting a small town just outside the Houston area of Texas, where the victims, of all ages and from all social classes, have been found in fields since 1969. Canaan Mann told reporters on Friday that roughly 27 of the murders still remain unsolved.
Her father, director Michael Mann, whose work includes the 1992 film "The Last of the Mohicans," produced the stylish but tightly-paced fictional account of the search for the girls' killers, or killer.
The story is told from the perspective of three detectives. Things heat up when troubled 12-year-old Anne Sliger, portrayed by Chloe Grace Moretz, is abducted and a new detective fresh from New York, Brian Heigh played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan — best known as Denny Duquette on "Grey's Anatomy" — goes into the fields to try and find her.
Heigh's detective partner Mike Souder — portrayed by Australian actor Sam Worthington, of "Avatar" fame — at first thinks Brian is in over his head in the new job.
Rounding out the cast is Jessica Chastain — star of this year's "The Tree of Life" — who plays a tough female detective who never hesitates to punch a thug in the face, but remains distinctively feminine.
On Friday, Canaan Mann praised Donald F. Ferrarone for his "brilliant script," and said she felt visually she could treat the plot as if it were a ghost story — with the killing fields being the traditional haunted house.
"So you would have that sense like when you hear the ghost story of a spooky house down the road," the director told a news conference. "You want to know what happened down there but you also don't."
Canaan Mann added that the film takes the victims seriously, and not just as "vehicles" for the story. She said she had tried to create their presence accumulatively, through voices, and wind, "so they could speak to the detectives, as I think victims often do."
The director said one element of her research was the discovery of the map.
"There was something about the images of these women and girls, some children," she said. "I spent a lot of time looking at this map and feeling all these eyes looking back at me and we replicated it for Jeffrey Dean Morgan's character Brian, (who had the) map on the wall of his office."
Morgan offers a sensitive and careful portrayal of impassioned detective Heigh, a devout Catholic who takes time to recite the "Hail, Mary" prayer over the bodies of victims.
Scriptwriter Ferrarone — who hails from a federal law enforcement background — noted that he has "lived across the world and this story just kept coming up. I had never heard something quite as poignant as this."