Synopsis: After murdering a traveling preacher, a fugitive drifter assumes his identity and becomes the new cleric of a small-town church. While he wins over the congregation, the police chief starts to link the mysterious stranger to a crime investigation.
Stars: Shea Whigham, Michael Shannon, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Bobby Soto, Bruno Bichir, Alvaro Martinez
Director: Scott Teems
Running Length: 103 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: There are times when big screen adaptations of novels feel too workmanlike, simply going through the motions like chapters are driving the characters forward rather than real motivations. Internal narratives are filled in with action so audiences don’t get restless and you feel as if you’ve lived the book rather than experienced the movie. Every so often, though, you come upon a film that’s made the leap from page to screen and the transition works to its advantage because it lets the book dictate the rhythm and pace of what develops.
No one is going to watch the indie drama The Quarry and get an adrenaline rush from the viewing because writer/director Scott Teems hasn’t set out to create a fast-paced crime noir set in a Texas border town. This is a carefully considered character study and before you roll your eyes a second time let me reel you back in and say that as dime a dozen as those may be, this is one to take a chance on. Though the action that takes place over the 103 minute run time may not be the most original or, let’s be honest, exciting, it’s at least compelling in a way that many similar films aren’t.
Picking up The Man (Shea Whigham, Vice) after finding him on the side of the road, a preacher (Bruno Bichir, Sicario: Day of the Soldado) running away from his past toward an unremarkable future makes the mistake of thinking he can save one last troubled soul. In short (non-spoiler-y) order, The Man kills him, dumps his body, and assumes his identity in the small dead-end town near the Mexican border, first as a way to hide from the law he’s clearly running from but eventually because he finds some salvation in the response he gets from the town’s residents. Much like 2019 Best Foreign Language Nominee Corpus Christi, the townspeople have a positive reaction to this supposed man of God because he speaks to them in a way no on has spoken before…as one of them, which, we know he is. Taking room and board with Celia (Catalina Sandino Moreno, A Most Violent Year) who sees the police chief (Michael Shannon, The Shape of Water) regularly puts a spotlight dangerously close to him…a situation made more tense when a body is discovered in the local quarry.
It’s interesting to note that Damon Galgut’s 1995 novel has been made into a movie once before in 1998 that maintained the book’s original setting: South Africa. Teems has skillfully moved the action to Texas which provides an opportunity to further explore the themes of the book involving the police trying to pin the murder on local minorities (blacks in the novel, Mexicans in the 2020 movie) which only makes The Man’s growing anguish over his crime grow. You don’t have to look very hard to see a little Les Misérables action happening, with a man living under a false name pursued by the law weighing his options when another man is arrested and tried for a crime he himself committed.
You may not know his name but you’ve definitely seen Whigham before (and you’ll see him again next week in a small role if you check out the excellent To the Stars) and he’s afforded a swell leading role here. He hasn’t made the leap in Hollywood to A-list, but I always have the feeling he’s one great role away from getting recognized for his strong showings wherever he turns up. His quiet, nearly silent, role speaks to a deep well of hurt within the convict and though you know you shouldn’t be on his side, you silently root for him to win. Never truly capitalizing on her Oscar-nominated role in 2004”s Maria Full of Grace, Sandino Moreno is excellent in her supporting turn as the lone female presence in a male dominated town/movie. Shannon’s lawman could very easily have gone cliché but he kept surprising me, whether that was the script or the actor, I’m still not quite sure. Another actor to look out for is Bobby Soto (A Better Life) as Celia’s cousin. Soto begins the film heading in one direction but takes a surprising twist halfway through. Going toe-to-toe with nearly everyone in the movie, Soto often manages to come out the winner in his scenes…a not small feat considering his co-stars.
You’ll hear the term “slow-burn” thrown around a lot when people talk about the movie but don’t take that to mean it won’t hold your interest. I was initially put off by what I thought would be another tale of “how long can a man who isn’t who he says he is fool everyone into thinking he isn’t a bad guy” and was pleased to find how much the movie pulled me in and took me along for the ride. For fans of these types of crime dramas and assured performances, you’ve got a good option in The Quarry.