Adapted from Damon Galgut’s 1995 novel of the same name, director Scott Teems’s film The Quarry comes to you as a gritty, grim, and bleak Neo-Western thriller. With a screenplay co-written by Teems and Andrew Brotzman, this feature exemplifies shades of the Coen Brothers’ 2007 instant classic No Country for Old Men and David Mackenzie’s 2016 picture Hell or High Water. However, Teems’s film also sets out to be something of its own, not beholden by any obligations or standards that it must meet in order to do its job.
From the get-go, it is obvious that there will be no shortage of tangled layers of mystery within the narrative. The film opens with a traveling preacher, David Martin (Bruno Bichir), driving along a barren desert highway, before suddenly stumbling upon a body on the side of the road. To his surprise, as well as the shock of the viewer, this figure still clings to life. Shea Whigham stars as this individual, effectively a Man with No Name in the vein of Clint Eastwood’s iconic character in Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns from the 1960s. True to form as a Good Samaritan, Martin is hopeful that he can lend a helping hand to this lost and lonesome wanderer. An eclectic personality himself, an alcoholic pastor, Martin knows a thing or two about troubled souls. Unfortunately for him, the distressed figure he finds brings nothing but chaotic energy and anarchy to every situation. “The Man,” as he shall be called henceforth, lashes out and murders Martin in the middle of a remote quarry on the outside of a nearby town. Taking Martin’s identity for himself, The Man then proceeds to the small rugged Texas community, acting in the role as a Man of God, despite his sinister deeds.
Of course, the Western tropes continue to be prominent as The Man reaches this run-down town. We have the gruff and tough Police Chief Moore, portrayed by the consistently impressive Michael Shannon. There is the lovely woman Celia (Catalina Sandino Moreno), who actually provides housing for ministers whenever they come to town, thus providing a place for The Man to stay as he operates under a guise. Local young troublemaking brothers Valentín (Bobby Soto) and Poco (Alvaro Martinez) are always giving Chief Moore grief, and do not take too well to an outsider lumbering into town. All of these volatile elements slowly and deliberately build the heavy, cumbersome tension that casts a dark shadow over the film’s tonal atmosphere. Each character in the story is weighed down by pain and regret from their pasts, which influences their reactions and decisions in present circumstances. This provides a route for unique, ponderous thematic exploration when it comes to The Man’s “sermons” as he preaches to an ever-growing congregation in the local church.
Remarkably, The Man’s messages from the word of God begin to move and inspire the townspeople more so than any other pastor who has come through the town. There is a spiritual revival of sorts, as the locals proclaim their need for salvation and repent of their sin. Of course, The Man himself is not speaking these words of wisdom from his heart. He is only there to cover up his ghastly crime. Still, underneath the surface of The Man’s false pretenses, perhaps there are hints of remorse, anguish, and a genuine lamentation for his actions. Maybe the words of his sermons are not only directed to the congregation, but to his own heart. Shea Whigham’s delivers a solid performance in the role of this afflicted, miserable, and broken character. The slowly developed nuances and evolving emotions seen in The Man leave their mark as the narrative continues its progression.
In addition to the prominent themes examined concerning faith and the struggle of dealing with one’s past mistakes, we are also given a glimpse into the unfortunately prevalent racial profiling and similar injustices seen in the United States. This small town in Texas contains a heavy concentration of Mexican men and women within its population, but the law enforcement officers are mostly white. The aforementioned delinquent brother duo of Valentín and Poco, although crooked youngsters in their own right, have never been known to be violent or dangerous. It has mostly been matters of petty theft and drug possession. However, as more clues come to light regarding The Man’s offenses, the first focus of law enforcement is on the two young men of Mexican descent. They are the easy targets, and there is enough circumstantial evidence that appears to be incriminating. Still, they have their word and claim to be innocent, which should mean something, but, they are looked down upon and are seen without a lens of clear and honest objectivity due to the color of their skin. How tragic that this is something seen on a daily basis in the United States today, due to a history of racism and discrimination that seems to be without end. Yet, we need to be reminded of these undesirable issues. We should be challenged to look at ourselves and look at the people around us and sincerely think about the choices we make. This convictive nature of The Quarry is one of its more potent aspects, and lends a great deal to its general success.
For the most part, The Quarry relies more on its narrative and thematic fortitude rather than extravagant technical showmanship. However, the achievements of director of photography Michael Alden Lloyd should be given their due praise. The sets and locations do not provide Lloyd with deep wells of resources and materials in terms of crafting stunning, memorable shots, but he manages to inject subtle moments of brilliance which communicate so much to the viewer in visual language alone. Particularly, Lloyd’s incorporation of reflective images in mirrors and glass are stellar contributions to the optical environment perceived by the audience. Editor Saira Haider knits all of Lloyd’s shots together fluidly, beautifully displaying much of the story’s haunting symbolism, especially that relating to death and new life. The irony of a murderer preaching about the eternal life to be found in Christ is illustrated exquisitely in a certain montage, of which the details will be kept vague to avoid spoilers. Nevertheless, suffice it to say that this specific sequence is one of the more profound moments to be found over the course of the motion picture.
Although The Quarry is not likely to be an Academy Award-winning hit like the other Neo-Westerns that apparently influenced it, director Scott Teems, co-writer Andrew Brotzman, and all other members of the production have still created a film with much to appreciate and admire. Those that are in the state of mind to stomach a melancholy, yet necessary, and thought-provoking slow-burn of a film will find that The Quarry just might hit the spot.
Available on VOD April 17th, 2020.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.
*This review was originally published by Elements of Madness on April 16, 2020, at https://elementsofmadness.com/2020/04/16/quarry/.