'The Quarry': Film Review

Courtesy of Lionsgate
A strong cast can't generate much drama in a slow-building tale.
4/17/2020

Shea Whigham's imposter tries to hide his identity from a small-town cop (Michael Shannon) in Scott Teems' drama.

A somber drama built on the idea that a small town is no place to try keeping secrets, Scott Teems' The Quarry pits a Texas police chief (Michael Shannon) against a newly arrived preacher (Shea Whigham) who isn't who he claims to be. Catalina Sandino Moreno and Bobby Soto round out a very fine cast; but sensitive performances only go so far toward generating sparks in the slow-moving film, which never becomes the crime-and-punishment nail-biter it might've been. While likely to elicit the kind of respectful reviews that greeted Teems' 2009 Hal Holbrook vehicle That Evening Sun, Quarry won't do much for his prospects in the art house arena.

We meet Whigham's unnamed character as he's picked up, near death after walking for days, on the side of the road. The van's driver David (Bruno Bichir), en route to a new preaching job near the Gulf Coast, feeds the stranger and gives him a ride. But his ministrations grow too intrusive at the wrong moment, and the impulsive man kills him. He hides the body sloppily in a quarry, then adopts his identity once he arrives in the little community of Bevel.

There aren't many hamlets in Texas so small they only have one house of worship. But when "David" rolls into Bevel and asks for "the church," a stranger knows exactly which way to point. If this and the odd hybrid-generic nature of the church he finds don't help the film project a strong sense of place, it may be relevant to know that the source material, a 1995 Damon Galgut novel, was set in South Africa. (A 1998 adaptation by Marion Hansel retained that setting.) What were post-Apartheid racial tensions in that novel turn to anti-immigrant sentiment here, with other themes adapted along the way.

The new David settles in uneasily with the woman who plays landlord to preachers who come and go through town. Celia (Moreno) notes on several occasions that he isn't like the other preachers she has known; it's not clear exactly what she means, but it seems to reflect poorly on David's predecessors.

When David's van is burglarized by local drug dealer Valentin (Soto) and his brother Poco (Alvaro Martinez), an unwelcome kind of attention comes his way. Police chief Moore (Shannon) is happy to pursue the brothers, and when the body of the real David is found, he pins the murder on them as well. But through some unlikely coincidences, Poco and Valentin feel sure they know who the real killer is, and Moore may soon take their claims seriously.

In Shannon, Teems has an actor well equipped to project a spectrum of suspicion, ranging from mild curiosity to fierce insistence he'll get his man. But the screenplay, by Teems and Andrew Brotzman, doesn't give the virtuoso performer an easy path. The danger that David will be exposed doesn't build suspensefully so much as it ebbs like a weak tide.

That makes it hard to connect with what Whigham is doing, in a brooding, guilty performance the script (at least what viewers see of it) doesn't support. The movie might've shed light on David's slow breakdown in several ways; we might, for instance, have been given an idea whether he's a garden-variety fugitive or a man running from something he's ashamed of. Instead, we can only watch as David plucks appropriate Bible verses to read in front of a small congregation who, being recent immigrants, don't even understand what he's saying.

Production companies: Prowess Pictures, Rockhill Studios
Distributor: Lionsgate (Available Friday, April 17 on demand)
Cast: Shea Whigham, Michael Shannon, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Bobby Soto, Alvaro Martinez, Jimmy Gonzales, Bruno Bichir
Director: Scott Teems
Screenwriters: Scott Teems, Andrew Brotzman
Producers: Laura D. Smith Ireland, Kristin Mann
Director of photography: Michael Alden Lloyd
Production designer: Erin Magill
Costume designer: Annell Brodeur
Editor: Saira Haider
Composer: Heather McIntosh
Casting director: Emily Schweber

Rated R, 103 minutes