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‘The Quarry’ Film Review: Michael Shannon and Shea Whigham Shine in Quiet, Guilt-Ridden Western

Director Scott Teems’ film is a slow-burn Western noir built around terrific but understated performances by longtime collaborators Shannon and Whigham

AWARDS BEAT

Earlier this year, the most surprising nominee in the Oscar race for Best International Feature Film was “Corpus Christi,” about an ex-convict who shows up at a small-town church in Poland claiming to be the preacher they’ve been waiting for. Three months later, “The Quarry” puts an American indie spin on the same kind of story, with its lead character a criminal on the run who shows up at a small-town Texas church claiming to be the preacher they’ve been waiting for.

In both films, the new “preacher” comes in with a plainspoken style so dramatically different from what the congregants are accustomed to seeing that he becomes a big hit – and in both films, the deception changes the deceiver as much as the deceived, until his past catches up to him.

Apart from these few plot similarities, though, “Corpus Christi” and “The Quarry” are miles apart. In Jan Komasa’s Polish film, which was based on a real event, the young preacher has energy and charisma, and he uses his newfound stature to pry into the town’s secrets. But there’s a quieter, more dour impostor at the center of “The Quarry,” and the tension that grips the film mostly has to do with his own secrets.

Directed by Scott Teems and based on a novel by Damon Galut that was set in South Africa, “The Quarry” is a slow-burn Western noir built around terrific but understated performances by Michael Shannon and Shea Whigham, who have worked together repeatedly since “Tigerland” in 2000 (“Take Shelter” and “Boardwalk Empire” being two notable collaborations). Originally scheduled for a SXSW premiere and a day-and-date theatrical opening from Lionsgate, “The Quarry” lost those to the coronavirus and is now premiering on demand on Friday.

It’s a patient film that could have used the immersive aspect of a theatrical run, but it still has plenty of pleasures to reward attentive viewers on any platform.

Whigham plays a character known only as “The Man,” though if you press him for his name you might get a dark answer: “It doesn’t matter. My name is sinner.” He’s found lying by the side of the road by a reverend heading for the small church where he’ll be stationed – but when the preacher figures out that his passenger is on the run and asks a few too many questions, the Man kills him and leaves him buried in a shallow grave in a quarry outside town.

“A new life awaits me where I’m going,” the preacher says shortly before he’s killed. “It could be the same for you.” The Man takes those words literally, assumes the preacher’s identity and shows up in the small border town ready to take the job. You might wonder how somebody so surly and monosyllabic is going to make it as a preacher, but the parishioners take to his blunt, non-judgmental ways. (Besides, only eight people show up for his first service, and seven of them don’t speak English.)

Complications, of course, arise almost immediately. The Man is so exhausted when he gets to town that he leaves his bags – or, rather, the dead preacher’s bags – in the back of the stolen van. That van is broken into by the local drug dealer and his 12-year-old brother almost immediately, and they see the bloody clothes and figure out that the new preacher is hiding something.

The burglary brings in Chief Moore, played by Shannon as a veteran lawman who’s spent his years watching the world grow colder and meaner and lose honor, and watching his town die once the interstate went through a few miles away. The apartheid setting of the novel is replaced by a town where the remaining whites don’t trust the Mexican immigrants who outnumber them, and Chief Moore quickly sets his sights on the brothers as the likely burglars – and, when the body in the quarry is found, the likely murderers.

At the same time, Moore doesn’t notice that there’s a picture of the new “preacher” on his bulletin board behind him, with the notation “Wanted for homicide and felony arson.” The Man rips the wanted poster down as soon as the chief leaves the room, and from there the tension rises: The guy who’s guessed the truth is in jail and nobody believes him, the preacher is finding a place where he seems to belong and the cop has vague misgivings but an easy way to wrap up the case.

But the plot details matter less than the tone and mood that Teems creates, and the nuances that Whigham and Shannon bring to their performances. “The Quarry” is a quiet movie with quiet performances; the two men almost never even raise their voices, but we know the stakes and feel the urgency in every muttered aside. Meanwhile, Heather McIntosh’s music lays back but is adept at heightening the tension when it needs to.

“Guilt’s a heavy burden, isn’t it, reverend?” asks Moore at one point. “Most men can’t carry it alone.” The Man clearly tries to do just that, but the transgressions in his past weigh heavy as he plays his new role. More and more, the movie focuses on a question: If a man without conscience pretends to be a man of God, will he inevitably develop a conscience?

You can think of “The Quarry” as a subtle thriller, but it’s more of a meditation on guilt, forgiveness and redemption in the West. By the end, though, it’s hard not to think of the words of a writer from the South, William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”