Wages of sin: "The Quarry"

A wanted man assumes the identity of a preacher in The Quarry, photo John-Carlo Monti

Crime/mystery/thriller, rated R, 98 minutes, AppleTV, Amazon Prime, Vudu, Google Play, Microsoft Movies & TV, FandangoNOW, 3.5 chiles

The first narrative feature from director Scott Teems is a blistering slow-burn thriller that benefits from a strong cast and an appropriately claustrophobic setting. In the sweltering heat of a small west Texas border town, a preacher comes to minister to the small congregation of a local church. But the man (Shea Whigham) is not what he seems. He’s a drifter, a wanted man, who’s assumed the identity of one David Martin, an alcoholic preacher who gave him a lift after finding him passed out on the side of a dusty highway. Whigham, whose character’s name is never revealed, prickles at Martin’s attempts to get him to confess his sins, kills him, and buries his body in a shallow grave.

The local police chief (Michael Shannon) is a hard man without much love for the local residents. He’s suspicious of the stranger, but you get the feeling that he’s seen too much during his years on the force not to be suspicious of everyone. When the new preacher’s stolen van is broken into, and the bloody cloths from his recent kill are discovered in the possession of Valentin (Bobby Soto), a small-time Mexican drug dealer, Chief Moore’s racism blinds him to the greater criminal. When Martin’s decaying body is discovered in the quarry, Valentin is set up to take the rap, despite the earnestness of his appeals. Valentin surmises that being Mexican is itself just cause for taking the blame. This all leads to a surprising buildup to a desperate, edge-of-your-seat climax.

Soto, Shannon, and Whigham all give powerful, emotive performances. There’s nary a false note. And The Quarry strives for more than your run-of-the-mill thriller. Talk of forgiveness and salvation from sin are near-constant refrains. Whigham, as the false preacher, is plagued by his conscience. He takes to his new profession with relish, reading sermons that are a reflection of the struggle within his own soul. It’s a powerful but subdued performance. Still, he seems to genuinely like ministering to the congregation and serving them as best he can. Chief Moore, for his part, is not above beating false confessions out of Valentin although he has his doubts about the preacher. Moore is always coming around to the church, probing for a chink in the preacher’s armor.

Composer Heather McIntosh’s pulse-pounding score ebbs and flows to the strains of violins and percussion, steadily building in intensity at moments of heightened drama. It’s a moody, haunting score that matches the loneliness of the small, forgotten border town. The setting — a railroad whistle stop — is the kind of place where whatever charm it may have once held is buried under the dust of years, and where no one is innocent. But whether or not they’re beyond salvation is the real matter The Quarry concerns itself with. On that score, it offers a faint glimmer of hope. 

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