Scott Teems’s low-key thriller tries to drill through the cultural clashes of the American West, but it hits an emotional bedrock instead.
A good mystery or thriller is built on far more than a whodunit or a whydunit. It won’t matter how intriguing your setup is if you can’t make me care about seeing it resolved. If you don’t create characters whose motivations and driving forces I can understand, then you have nothing—a lesson The Quarry has clearly forgotten.
Instead, it gives us a drifter (Shea Whigham) with a vaguely mysterious background. Opening shots of a burning building and allusions to police on the lookout for him give us enough to assume the worst, but that’s about it. When we meet him, he’s passed out on the side of the road in the middle of the desert. A traveling preacher pulls over to help him, but when the preacher starts asking questions, he grows suspicious at the drifter’s reluctance to answer them.
So, he switches gears, pushing the drifter to confess his (suspected) sins. Instead, the drifter lashes out, hitting the preacher with a wine bottle, killing him. Rather than flee or own his crime, he decides to bury the body in a quarry and assume the man’s identity.
He arrives in a small, mostly Mexican border town, ready to take the preacher’s place. But it doesn’t take long before police chief, Moore (Michael Shannon), starts to suspect something is amiss and the drifter has to step even more carefully to avoid being found out. Things only grow more complicated when a couple of local boys root through the possessions in the drifter’s stolen car and find not just his bloody shirt, but also key evidence tying him to the scene of the crime.
The problem with the entire setup, however, is that at no point are you given a reason to care about any of this. Whigham’s drifter is a husk at best, an empty vessel that barely serves to move the plot forward beyond the inciting incident. You get the impression that he could vanish from the film entirely and it wouldn’t really be any worse off.
Furthermore, there’s a relationship between the chief and a Mexican woman that’s barely explored. Then there are the two brothers, about whom we know almost nothing. One is older, one is younger, the older gets into trouble with the law and takes his little brother along for the ride. But how they feel about each other and why remains something that can only be parsed out through a series of assumptions. It’s as if writer/director Scott Teems expects the mere label of “brother” to do all the emotional heavy lifting for us.
What’s truly frustrating, though, is that The Quarry really seems to have something to say, but it’s impossible to figure out what it is. More than half the characters are Mexican (only the drifter and the chief are white), which could (and should) open a conversation not just about race, but also about who we side with, who we blame, and why.
What’s truly frustrating, though, is that The Quarry really seems to have something to say, but it’s impossible to figure out what it is.
Similarly, a complex conversation about religion and who’s really best suited to preach to the masses is also rendered moot. The drifter is set up as the only successful preacher this sleepy border town has ever seen, despite a nonreligious background and speaking only English to a majority Spanish-speaking population. Instead of starting a dialogue, the choice just ends up feeling disgustingly patronizing if not colonialist.
But because every single character lacks interiority, that conversation is impossible. There’s no drama to the film’s most crucial and climatic scenes because we have no idea what anyone really wants or what drives them. The drifter is clearly traumatized or haunted by something, but that isn’t enough to make us invested in him. As a result, all we really have are Whigham’s dead-eyed stares carrying us from one scene to the next.
The Quarry is nothing short of a mess, and an aggressively, painfully dull one at that. Ultimately, sparks of joy are few enough these days without slogging through something so empty.
The Quarry hits VOD this Friday, April 17.