In “The Quarry,” Shea Whigham stars as a fugitive wanted for murder and arson who, in a moment of anger, kills the preacher (Bruno Bichir) who picked him up on a West Texas roadside, trying to help. He then buries the body in a quarry and assumes the dead man’s identity, traveling to a tiny town where the reverend was to take charge of a sleepy church.
But the movie, directed by Scott Teems and based on a novel by the South African writer Damon Galgut, proceeds to squelch any suspense surrounding the main character’s unmasking with an atmosphere of relentless solemnity. The film plays as if it’s been smothered under a pile of rocks. In a miscalculated performance, Whigham, credited only as The Man, is so reserved, even when responding to simple questions, that it is amazing the townspeople buy him as someone whose job involves speaking publicly.
Upon arriving, The Man — who adopts the name of the preacher, David Martin — is put up in a house by Celia (Catalina Sandino Moreno), whose main role in the drama is to sit in dark rooms and ponder her regrets. (A somber, repetitive score by Heather McIntosh adds another layer of gloom.)
After his possessions are stolen from a van, The Man files a report with the police chief, John (Michael Shannon), who is in a relationship with Celia and harbors certain racist and reactionary tendencies. These lead him to Celia’s cousins (Bobby Soto and Alvaro Martinez), who did in fact steal his belongings. But the items, unfortunately for them, include some bloody clothes.
Posing as a preacher evidently rubs off on the protagonist, who finds that he is capable of captivating his flock and even performing a baptism. He hints that Celia’s cousins ought to be let off the hook.
“Forgiveness only works in a world where people learn their lessons,” John says in response. “But they don’t. Not here, anyway.” Chewing on a line like that, Shannon is the only the actor who seems to recognize that this material is more suited to a potboiler than a limp, contrived spiritual parable.