SXSW Exclusives: The Quarry (2020) - Reviewed

The burden of guilt is a common theme in films. From Christian Bale’s skeletal performance in The Machinist (2004) to Tim Burton’s emotional hedge maze of a fish tale, Big Fish (2003), atonement is a powerful motivator for character development. Even more powerful when guilt is the product of another’s death. As Vladimir Nabokov once wrote, “It was something quite special, that feeling: an oppressive, hideous constraint as if I were sitting with the small ghost of somebody I had just killed.”

Writer/Director Scott Teems new film The Quarry is the latest to focus on this topic. One of several films originally scheduled to premiere at Austin’s cancelled SXSW 2020 festival, Teems’ new thriller is headed to VOD this Friday. Starring Shea Whigham (Joker, Take Shelter) and Michael Shannon (The Shape of Water, Knives Out), The Quarry centers on a mysterious new preacher in small and struggling Texas border town. The Preacher, played by Whigham, arrives after committing apparently two serious crimes, one witnessed by the audience in the first ten minutes of the film. As he begins to settle in and get to know his congregation, the new leader of the church finds himself pulled into an investigation by the Police Chief (Michael Shannon).

Based on Damon Galgut’s novel by the same name, Teems adapted the post-apartheid South African story to fit America’s relationship with its southern border. The Quarry examines the complexity that exists between a decaying rural America and its immigrant residents. Although the dialog is heavy-handed in some places, the film does not shy away from criticizing how we decide which faces are trust-worthy. This gives a tale otherwise focused on coming to terms with one’s choices a multifarious dynamic and feels appropriate for the times in which we currently live.

The most intriguing aspect of The Quarry is the question it poses regarding the connection between a sinner and their god. Does sin separate you from God or is it the ultimate bridge to him? The film dedicates much of the screen time to exploring The Preacher’s relationship with God and sin’s ability to blur the lines between humility and lunacy. In the words of Joseph Conrad, “Over the lives borne from under the shadow of death there seems to fall the shadow of madness.”

Ultimately, The Quarry fall short of sticking the landing. However, this is not due to any lack of performance. Michael Shannon’s portrayal as a flawed salt of the earth everyman provides a grounded backdrop to the highly emotional exchanges between Shea Whigham, Bobby Soto (A Better Life), and Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace) who play the town’s local residents. The chemistry between Whigham and Soto is powerful, drawing audiences into the seriousness of the subject matter. The issue lies in the script. Most of internal struggle with The Preacher concerns itself with him coming to terms with the second crime committed. However, this crime is the result of the first. Except for a few limited flashback montages, the audience is not really acquainted with the ‘original sin’. The result is a one dimensional come-to-jesus moment during the climatic conclusion, robbing the story and the audience of connecting to the lesson in The Quarry. Nevertheless, the film is still worth checking out.

-Dawn Stronski