A new film from Scott Teems, king of the Southern drama, follows a violent drifter who assumes the identity of a small-town preacher.
“You are no man of God,” a young Latino man named Valentín shouts from behind bars at a white man dressed as a minister in The Quarry. “You will burn in hell.” The unnamed and suspicious preacher he condemns is a fugitive who has wandered into a small Texas town. Up until this point, it seems as though this false prophet might have possibly found God while assuming the preacher’s identity—but now the unnamed man is letting Valentín go down for his crime. This scene, which takes place later in the film, is one of The Quarry’s more powerful. The false minister prays and breaks down in tears as Valentín condemns him, sealing their fates with sore words: “I will see you there.”
The Quarry is the newest feature by writer-director Scott Teems, who made his directorial debut with That Evening Sun (2009) and has written for TV in Rectify and Narcos: Mexico. Set to premiere at SXSW before its cancellation in March, The Quarry has skipped the film festival circuit and the theatrical release that would have taken place under normal circumstances. Instead, on April 17, Lionsgate released it on demand at every major retailer including AppleTV and Amazon Prime Video.
Based on a 1995 novel by Damon Galgut of the same name, The Quarry tells a dark morality tale of a nameless drifter and fugitive, played by Shea Whigham, who kills a minister he meets on the road in West Texas and then assumes his identity as the new reverend in a small town close to the Gulf only hours later. (Geography remains as questionable as the man’s true identity.) The result is an exploration of religious notions of accountability and a bleak tale of racism in the American criminal justice system. When the real minister’s body is eventually found in the nearby quarry but cannot be identified, the local drug dealer and petty thief Valentín is accused, while the main character watches and does nothing, consumed by guilt and under the ever suspicious eye of the police chief, played by Michael Shannon.
Galgut’s novel takes place not in small-town Texas, but in post-apartheid South Africa. In the book, the minister is the odd one out for speaking English, as the majority of the town speaks Afrikaans; in the movie, most of the community speaks Spanish. Both modern rural Texas and 1990s rural South Africa are settings that illustrate charged, tense social environments, and as we zone in on the moral failing of our protagonist, we are simultaneously making sense of a culture in transition.
Between the movie and its source material, the narrative is close to identical, but as an adaptation, the new film leaves something to be desired. Both works are slow-paced and create a sense of threatening quiet, but not in an especially compelling or striking way on screen. The book begins with pages upon pages of impressionistic writing about the nameless main character walking and hiding along deserted country roads, prose that shows clearly the desperation of this character and the desolation and roughness of the landscape he treads. In contrast, the film lurches to a stilted start with a flashback of a house on fire and never succeeds in building suspense or keeping us very invested in the character. The repetitive, dramatic score doesn’t match the level of intrigue we are meant to be feeling, and at times, these stylistic choices cause the film to drag.
However, in the second half, the drama of the crime starts to swell, and the profound themes at play take on new power. The police chief thinks no one will come to church services under a new minister, but instead, new worshippers flock en masse, filling the old, neglected building. One woman offers her help as the preacher’s translator, sharing his memorable answer when they ask them who he is: “I am a sinner.” Like the churchgoers, we start to wonder about the God who reigns over this land, and how forgiving he might be. New life blooms with spring, an elderly woman asks to be baptized, and we flash back to the real minister’s words before our protagonist killed him at the quarry: “A new life awaits me where I’m going. It can be the same for you.”
While the film severely underutilizes the talented Catalina Sandino Moreno as Celia, the woman putting the minister up in her house, her role conveys another person striving for salvation. Her life paints a picture of an economically depressed, spiritually drained local. She mostly smokes cigarettes in her dark house, hangs washed-out clothes, and grows worried about her young cousins getting into trouble. Decorating her house with fake flowers, she, like the accused Valentín, the despairing townspeople, and the (fake) reverend, is in desperate need of something real, lasting, and true.
Just as the racist police chief comes to accuse Valentín, played by Bobby Soto, the minister has turned to the holy book and seems to be on his own path to redemption, trying to help his congregants and study the Lord’s words. Yet he’s not planning on confessing to the murder, and the police chief’s tough, watchful eye is on him, intuiting that he’s hiding something.
Teems is skilled in capturing these dynamics between men, especially in the mode of rough Southern grit and dark humor, as he has in past projects. Still, it’s a shame that he takes out one of the more provocative elements of the book: Galgut’s prose indicates some erotic, or at least highly physical, dimension between these two men. In the book, the policeman is always vigorously cleaning his motorcycle shirtless in front of the minister and standing so closely before him so as to make him feel his breath. Here, though, the gifted Shannon is handed a one-dimensional role with little to work with.
As an innocent young man goes down for his crime, the false minister wants to atone but knows he can’t. He visits Valentín’s jail cell and prays aloud before him but is met with fury: Valentín knows the minister is guilty. In the final scenes, a bloody courtroom fiasco and a chance for escape will reveal an opportunity for both of them. But no matter the ruling of the courts, the troubled preacher will still see blood on his hands.
In the end, the motif of names reveals the core truth of the film. Our protagonist never reveals his real name, even as time and again he is asked to confess it, a flaw that cements his status as the nameless sinner. Yet in the old jail cell, the police chief asks Valentín if he’s carved his name into the wall yet—“it’s a tradition.” While the white man goes free and takes shelter in his namelessness, the names of the underclass, the eternal scapegoats, are already inscribed in the jail wall. In this way, The Quarry is a radical Christian film with its lens set on justice. Any moral, religious actor must wrestle with the position they’ve been given under man’s systems of law and hold the truth on their tongues right next to their names.
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