' ' Cinema Romantico: The Quarry

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

The Quarry

Based on a novel by Damon Galgut, “The Quarry” has all ingredients for a nifty little neo-noir: an arsonist stealing another man’s identity facing off against a small-town sheriff mixed with notions of forgiveness and putting your faith in the wrong people. That such a noir never materializes in director Scott Teems’s hand is partly because these themes barely scratch the surface and partly because the film itself has absolutely no crackle. “The Quarry” might be set in Texas, more of the Southwest than the Deep South, but its air reminded me of a literal Deep South kind, the sweltering, overpowering humidity that yields apathy, in feeling, in motion, in everything. “The Quarry” moves slow like you might move in a Deep Southern summer, confusing that slowness for significance, evoked in the unfortunate lead performance of Shea Whigham which never comes across as the grinning monster briefly glimpsed in a Wanted poster, more like a dull dude stuck in a permanent somnambulant state.

Whigham is The Man, never getting a name, rescued from a ditch by David Martin (Bruno Bichir), an alcoholic reverend on his way to a small Texas town to begin life anew by leading a small congregation. But when David asks too many questions, The Man lashes out, killing him, burying him in a quarry, a scene that makes less sense the further the movie goes because this nameless guy’s apparent hot temper is never glimpsed again, not just in terms of being unleashed but needing to be stifled. As such, his assuming David’s identity and preaching to the congregation instead comes with a conspicuous lack of tension, never mind transformation. If his character name means he is intended as a cipher, both Whigham and “The Quarry” itself still views him as one after he takes David’s name and assumes David’s role, lingering neither on the subterfuge it might take to maintain this impersonation or how the impersonation affects him. The Man never becomes someone else, mostly existing as-is, strange and dour  and uncommunicative, aside from spouting few Bible verses, as if a few bits of Scripture is all it takes to shepherd his flock. Do the congregants find this moving? I guess, though we never see it through their eyes and Whigham’s turn fails to move the emotional needle.

His congregation is all-Hispanic, highlighting how “The Quarry’s” other narrative thread involves a pair of Mexican immigrants, Valentin (Bobby Soto) and Poco (Alvaro Martinez), plundering The Man’s van, fingered for the crime by Chief Moore (Michael Shannon), and then unfairly fingered for the death of the real David when his body is discovered. If the powerlessness of Valentin and Poco in the face of their white adversaries is part of the point, they are also never made into real characters, suffering only so The Man can ostensibly work through his guilt, reinforcing rather than subverting the idea of these migrants as being faceless.

Shannon’s riffing a little on his own performance in “Nocturnal Animals”, though at a slightly less rageful level, his Police Chief introduced out of uniform and only putting it on, still unbuttoned, when The Man shows up to report the theft. If Moore is half-assing his job, then, it’s good the mystery is so easy to piece together, epitomized in the tiny speck of wanted poster left under the thumbtack on the Police Station’s bulletin board after The Man tears it down. That’s all it takes?! Then again, to Shannon’s credit, he mostly plays the part as someone on to this newcomer all along, saying “Reverend” with a dry bemusement, each greeting essentially translating to “Fess up, will ya?” That makes a courtroom scene in which the phony preacher man is called to testify as something close to a confessional, with Shannon as the reverend and Whigham as the confessor, though this scene, like the movie itself, fizzles out. Still, being the only dynamic performer made me wonder if the roles had been reversed and Shannon played The Man, if he might have tapped into a phony, showy spiritualism. Whether it would have worked, who knows, but it might have kept me awake.

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