Georgian Scott Teems, who first gained notice with the Faulkneresque Southern Gothic “That Evening Sun,” gives the genre a Hispano-Southern Gothic updating with “The Quarry,” a dark and blood-stained morality tale set in remote, rural “Reconquista”Texas.
The script, with its Biblical parable story arc and pithy monologues peppered with sharp observations about humanity, the changing world and changed South, attracted a dazzling trio of leads. And the result does not disappoint — well, not much anyway.
A priest (Bruno Bichir, brother of Demián), interrupts his wine-swilling drive through the barrens of East Texas when he spies a body beside the road. It’s a man, passed out and broke. He does the priestly thing. He picks him up, loads him into the old van, drives him down the road and feeds him.
He also offers him a drink, because “I am an alcoholic,” he confesses. “Confession” saves the soul, he counsels. And he gets a little pushy about it.
But the sour-faced drifter (Shea Whigham) isn’t having it — isn’t having it with EXTREME prejudice. That’s how Father David winds up dead. An impulse killed him, and then a practiced panic kicks in. The drifter dumps the body in an abandoned quarry.
For reasons only a novelist (Damon Galgut wrote the book this is based on) can justify, the drifter drives the van to the village where they’re waiting on their new priest.
He takes up the stole and vestments, cracks open the priest’s Bible to Timothy, Chapter One.
“I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enabled me, for that he counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry; Who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief.”
His humorless, deadpan sermon — in English, which few of his congregants speak — touches the faithful in its lack of judgment, forcing them to read passion and life lessons into it because the priest isn’t providing those. He’s an instant hit.
“I just say the words. It’s not me that you’re here for. It’s the words, the Book.”
But when he arrived in town, his van was ransacked. Apetty drug dealer, Valentin (Bobby Soto) got hold of wheels, a suitcase, and stuff the cops call “evidence.”
So maybe reporting the crime to the police chief (Michael Shannon) isn’t the smartest play. The lady who runs the rectory (Maria Sandino Moreno of “Che” and “Maria Full of Grace”) insists on it.
Just hope the drawling good’ol boy doesn’t eyeball the “Wanted” posters on the wall behind him too carefully.
Shannon eats characters like this bad-“good” man cop alive. A prisoner gripes, “Gimme a CIGARETTE, Chief.”
“Naaw, you know me. I don’t SMOKE, ‘cabrón!'”
Whigham and Shannon go way back — “Boardwalk Empire,” “Take Shelter,” etc. Whigham’s work in their scenes together largely consists of keeping a guilt-ridden poker face, and under-reacting to Shannon.
“Not much in the collection plate? Maybe you should watch them TV preachers, get some tips.”
“You’re not much on smilin’, are ye?”
Everybody, from the congregation to the chief, reads more into the “priest” than this unGodly man has in his background. It’s “I know what you’re thinking…’Turn the other cheek. (But) forgiveness only works in a world where people learn their lessons.”
“The Quarry” stumbles and shows its malnourished nature in the third act, when little conveniences like the lack of a courtroom (“hold it in church”) and lack of an actual local prosecutor (Let the Chief prosecute the case?) are explained away in a most half-assed way.
The sordid underbelly of this recently-Hispanized town is touched on, the Chief’s “not entirely legal” methods, etc., are but background to the relationship dynamics that are hinted at but somewhat undeveloped.
But Teems and his team get a nice spin on Southern Gothic tropes and types, and “The Quarry” makes for a slow, simmering tale that has glorious performances and rewards, even in its noticeable shortcomings.
MPAA Rating: R for some violence and language
Cast: Michael Shannon, Shea Whigham, Maria Sandino Moreno, Bobby Sotoa and Bruno Bichir.
Credits: Directed by Scott Teems, script by Scott Teems and Andrew Brotzman, based on the novel by Damon Galgut. A Lionsgate release
Running time: 1:38