Desperate men will do desperate things. That may as well be the tagline of director Scott Teems’ latest, The Quarry. Based on the Damon Galgut novel of the same name, the sun-bleached neo-noir follows a nameless man as he hurls himself from one desperate measure to the next, paying no care to those he brings down with him.
Shea Whigham stars as “The Man,” whose name we’ll never know. He is a furtive creature, who is at the center of the story yet remains largely a mystery. His backstory is made up of a single, stark image: a big house ablaze. From there, the man will be found in a ditch on the side of the road. He has no injuries, no suitcase, no wallet, and few words for David Martin (Bruno Bichir), the kind-hearted preacher who picks him up. The two share a meal at a diner, then a long drive toward a Texas border town. Along the way, David shares more of himself than the man ever will, spilling secrets of addiction, a forbidden love affair, and his hope for a fresh start at a new parish. The preacher talks too much. When he suggests this guarded hitchhiker confess his sins so he might take the path to salvation, the man lunges, pummeling poor David to death. He then haphazardly buries him in the quarry before stealing his van, identity, and plan for the future.
The man rolls into the border town, tumbles into the empty church, and makes quick friends with a friendly local (Maria Full of Grace’s Academy-Award nominated star Catalina Sandino Moreno). However, his plan to lie low is derailed once his stolen van is broken into. Enter Michael Shannon as the hardened police chief who casually slings words like “redneck” and “illegals.” What begins as a petty theft case excites this cynical cop, who fondly recalls the days when the public would wave at an officer. Chief Moore leans hard on a local pot dealer Valentin (Bobby Soto) and his kid brother Poco (Alvaro Martinez), while sniffing around for heftier charges. When some bloody clothes and strange flowers lead him to the corpse in the quarry, neither the Mexican brothers’ pleas of innocence nor the preacher’s bizarre behavior can change the chief’s mind. So, the tension comes not from whether the man will be caught, but whether he will turn himself in given this second chance to confess.
On paper, it sounds like compelling stuff: the busted border town, the racist cop, vulnerable youth, and a mysterious man with a bloody secret. However, Teems’ slow-burn approach never ignites. He paints this portrait of desperation, crime, and hypocrisy in shades of dust. The score groans while the cast grumbles, playing stock characters with little spark. To Soto’s credit, he throws a fiery fury into Valentin, who knows the deck is stacked against him, innocent or not. But most of the cast fall into a world-weariness that borders on sleepwalking.
The Man is more interesting in concept than execution. Though we know him to be a murderer, thief, and probably arsonist, he doesn’t like to lie –at least not directly. When asked questions that demand he lie or be caught, he dodges them with a diversion or a shrug of his shoulders. He brings this same restraint to the pulpit, which his parishioners mistake for humility. He doesn’t yell about hellfire and damnation. This preacher just reads from the Bible, his eyes never rising from the page, as if he hasn’t read these passages a thousand times before. There’s an intriguing message about the benefit of the doubt given to any white man who isn’t overtly a maniac. However, this confinement of character means Whigham is left with little to do except play withholding, which isn’t very engaging. We might intellectually understand why he inspires his new flock, but we don’t feel it.
Still, Moreno has it worse. The sole female character of note in the film, she exists chiefly to get f*cked and be kind while tragic. With a penetrating gaze, she carries a compelling vulnerability whether she’s chatting with the preacher or arguing with her troubling lover. Yet, the film regards her more as a symbol than a person. She is hope, goodness, and faithfulness. Frankly, putting all that on the lone female lead is as tiresome as it is clumsy.
Last but not least is Shannon, who tones down his wild eyes and theatrics to fit within Teems’ dun-colored world of grumblers. As Shannon performances go, this one is solid. He’s instantly intriguing as he cracks a crass joke about a “redneck circumcision.” You might think you’ve got his character pegged as a cretin of a cop. However, Shannon’s always had a skill at etching in complexity to villain roles, and here he plays with remote lines in ways that make us wonder how much the chief knows versus how much he wants to know. Shannon essentially makes Moore a modern-day version of Les Misérables’ Javert, an officer dedicated to justice but too blinded by his own prejudices to do the good he believes he should. There’s a subtle tragedy in this thread that hits harder than the others, perhaps because Shannon managed to sketch more out of his role than his co-stars could from their woefully underwritten ones.
All in all, The Quarry is fine. It’s smoothly paced, sensibly plotted, and boasts stars who are riveting enough on their own that they make a pretty predictable plot enjoyably watchable. If you’ve seen every Coen Brothers movie, and don’t mind a pale imitation of their noirs, it’ll serve.