Michael Shannon Digs Up “The Quarry” or Christ Like Me

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Who doesn’t enjoy a troubled priest film (e.g. First Reformed (2017); The Exorcist (1973))? Wikipedia lists 105 such entries in the genre. But what about a movie with a tormented priest who’s not really a clergyman, but a Man-of-God murderer who’s just posing as a saintly soul? And can such a sinner, reading from his victim’s Bible daily, not become devout, especially when his newly acquired flock believes he’s the genuine article? And why shouldn’t The Quarry ask those questions?

After all, Pope Saint John Paul II insisted that “a priest is a man who offers his whole humanity to God so that God might use him as an instrument of salvation.” Clearly, The Man (Shea Whigham), as he is acknowledged to in the credits, is saving souls under the moniker “David Martin,” the moniker he lifted from the Minister of Christ he just half-buried in the titular quarry.

Is that confusing? Let’s just say the real David Martin, an alcoholic, while driving to his next posting in a small Texan border town, picks up The Man, who’s lying on the side of the road inert. Martin takes this lifeless gent to a restaurant, where The Man drinks a whole lot of water and eats pancakes with his hands. (The film, by the way, is based on the Damon Galgut’s post-apartheid South African novel. In this adaptation, put-upon blacks have been replaced by put-upon Hispanics.)

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Well, after displaying his faulty flapjack etiquette, “Martin” hits Martin over the head with a wine bottle, and the impostor now takes his victim’s van to the border town to begin the latter’s holy duties, but not with an assured hand.

Luckily, when “Martin” opens his poached Bible, the First Epistle of Paul to Timothy is what shows up. Here’s a very “hopeful” section of the Good Book: “But we know that the law is good, if a man uses it lawfully: knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind . . . .” Apparently, this indicates there’s a possible redemption for sinners if they switch pathways, at least according to my Bible-touting sister-in-law’s informed interpretation.

So can “Martin” gain a halo in a film with a 100-minutes running time? Imagine a sort of transplanted film-noir plot with loads of sun and sand but no Coppertone, and you might guess the finale . . . or not. But believe me, it’s rather worth hanging around for, and what else do you have to do nowadays?

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Having caused a stir opposite Julia Roberts in Amazon Prime’s Homecoming and in 56 episodes of Empire Boardwalk, Whigham here, in one of his first starring roles, embraces the finessed inexpressiveness of Clint Eastwood. He’s a man with a secret on the run from the police towards God. As an actor, he has to keep us guessing whether he’s scamming all of those around him with his prayers, his stigmata-like wound, and his nerve-fraying dreams about coffins. His is a solid, ultra-interior performance.

But Michael Shannon is the life of the party here in a rather showy role as the widowed local sheriff, Chief John Moore. He’s a bigot with a heart of gold with the best lines: “How do you give a redneck a circumcision? Hit his sister in the jaw.” Shannon has been constantly lauded over the years (The Shape of Water (2017); Revolutionary Road (2008)), but when you see him in a really small indie, you just feel his life force flowing forth even more. His glare. His smile. You probably wouldn’t even mind if he were the one who ordered you to be beaten up in a jail cell. There’s little doubt that if Shannon had started acting in the ’70s, he’d have DeNiro’s status by now.

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Also, quite fine is Bobby Soto as a rather volatile thief and Catalina Sandino Moreno (an Oscar nominee for Maria Full of Grace (2004)) as Moore’s girlfriend and The Man’s landlord who convincingly wears a pink housecoat in most scenes.

Writer/Director Scott Teems’ sophomore narrative feature shows great promise. No doubt with a bigger budget, a script with a few more narrative twists, a lead character who is a bit more vocal, and a few viewings of a Hitchcock offering such as Strangers on a Train, he will no doubt salvage all of our cinematic souls in the years to come.

(The Quarry has gone On Demand as of April 17, 2020.)

Brandon Judell has published in The Village Voice, The Advocate, and 50 or so other outlets. He is currently a lecturer at The City College of New York.

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