Scott Teems’ “The Quarry” is a sun-baked neo-noir in the grand tradition of “Blood Simple” and “Red Rock West,” in which a small, dusty town conceals dark secrets and buried bodies. Pictures like these aren’t too hard to come by, particularly in the realm of video-on-demand. What makes “The Quarry” special is that it’s essentially a two-hander for Shea Whigham and Michael Shannon. Two of our finest character actors (and former “Boardwalk Empire” co-stars), they bring a little jolt of electricity into every film role, no matter how small or seemingly incidental. And thus, the film’s primary pleasure is watching these two pros at work, and at work together: sniffing each other out, sizing each other up, calling the other’s bluffs, and bouncing their little idiosyncrasies off each other. They’re clearly having a great time, and it’s infectious.
Teems opens the story (drawn from Damon Galut’s novel) with impenetrable and seemingly disconnected images: a home on fire, a man driving his van, and another man passed out by the side of the road. The driver’s name is David Martin (Bruno Bichir), and he’s a reformed alcoholic and a minister; we never find out the name of the second man, whom he picks up and dusts off. But he’s played by Whigham, and his new acquaintance can sense that he’s done something bad, and as a man of the cloth, he tries to help him. “Whatever you’ve done, they’ll find you,” Martin assures him, and offers him the chance to confess. “A new life awaits me where I’m going, it can be the same for you.” Instead, the stranger kills the preacher where he stands and goes to the border town where that new life awaits, assuming Martin’s identity – and thus his church – while he hides out.
No sooner has he settled into town than his van – that is, Martin’s van – is burglarized, which sends him to the police station, where Chief Moore (Shannon) proves he’s not the most perceptive of sorts by not noticing that the visage of town’s newest citizen is on a “WANTED” flyer on his bulletin board. Chief Moore, we soon realize, can barely be bothered with any of this; the character’s enthusiasm for his work could charitably be called half-assed, which makes him a good fit for the actor’s offhand strangeness. (In the film’s single funniest moment, he takes in the preacher’s Bible reading at a sparsely attended funeral and mutters, with a shrug, “That’s a weird fuckin’ verse.”)
The screenplay, by Teems and Andrew Brotzman, gradually reveals our protagonist’s sordid past and dirty secrets via out-of-context flashbacks and carefully withheld information, which can leave a lesser actor adrift; the kind of impenetrability required by this character is hard to pull off without a viewer checking out. Wingham wisely keys in on the existential dilemma of the character’s missing identity – on his first Sunday in the pulpit, one parishioner asks “Who are you?” and another asks “Why are you here?” and they’re both very good questions. Uncertain of how to pull this ruse off, he chooses a simple preaching technique of minimal interpretation. “I just say the words,” he explains, finding that the direct approach works wonders.
The broad strokes of what follows aren’t hard to predict: the newly religious criminal will find himself approaching something like guilt and redemption, while the chief simultaneously uncovers the sins of his past. (Some of this doesn’t really hold water; it seems a stretch that literally no one is suspicious that this border town preacher cannot speak Spanish.) But as the story draws to its conclusion, the narrative takes a couple of unexpected left turns and leans into the real, psychological stakes. Wingham shoulders much of that burden, and does it well; he makes the character’s guilt and anguish real, and heavy.
“The Quarry” has its problems; some of the symbolism is mighty heavy-handed, and poor Catalina Sandino Moreno (an Oscar nominee, lest we forget!) is saddled with an absolutely nothing role. But its leads deliver, individually and especially together, and Teems somehow manages to sound a note of reserved hope at the picture’s conclusion, without sacrificing the inherent nihilism of the genre. [B]