It’s the kind of West Texas town you’ve seen in a thousand movies — not just tranquil but barren, stock-still, a real desolation row, like a postcard that may or may not contain living things. Michael Shannon, as a local police chief, explains that it’s the sort of small town that people once thought of as quaint: one bank, one pizza place, and so on. Except that “The Quarry” is one of those bone-dry minimalist dramas in which it’s hard to say whether it’s the town that’s so sparse, arid, and motionless or simply the film itself. Why is it that only five people seem to live there, and that they happen to be the only five characters in the movie? “The Quarry” is so diagrammed that it uses its undernourished dark-side-of-the-heartland atmosphere to excuse the fact that nothing of note is really taking place.
Shea Whigham, who can be a zesty character actor (in movies like “American Hustle,” “First Man,” and “Joker”), here hollows himself into a walking existential husk to play a man who is never named: some vague criminal on the run, who at a roadside diner meets Daniel Martin (Bruno Bichir), a broken-down Mexican-born reverend who guzzles red wine as he drives his van, heading for that town, where he has received an appointment to lead the local church. Through his drunken haze, he can sense that Whigham’s tense, hungry vagabond is up to no good. And that seals his fate — he is soon lying face down in a desert quarry, killed by shards of glass in his neck.
Is our antihero a cold psychopath, or just a desperate opportunist who has run out of options? Either way, he jumps into the van and steals his victim’s identity, showing up in town to hide out as a man of the cloth.
It sounds like the set-up for a film noir from the late ’50s, but one of the beauties of good noir was the way that it found joy in depravity. “The Quarry,” with its stoic sinner who is out for redemption (or something), is more like Robert Duvall’s “The Apostle” remade as a draggy, reductive TV-movie. I’ve seen one other film by the director Scott Teems that I liked — the Tennessee family drama “That Evening Sun” (2009) — but this time, instead of telling a juicy story, he cobbles together a dark schematic allegory with woke grace notes about border-town race relations. The film is based on a novel by the South African writer Damon Galgut, but the book was rooted in its South African setting. By transplanting it to a rather abstract version of the American South, Teems drains most of the life out of it.
In addition to Whigham, who looks like a very dour version of Jason Bateman but talks here in the grave low tones of Sam Elliott, “The Quarry” features Michael Shannon doing his standard grumpy hard-ass number as the town officer, who is having an affair with the saintly morose Celia (Catalina Sandino Moreno), who runs the house in which a room is given to the reverend. If that sounds all too conveniently insular, try this: On his first night there, Whigham’s belongings — which are really the property of the man he killed — are stolen out of his van by Valentin (Bobby Soto), the town’s pot-dealing delinquent, and his 12-year-old protégé, Poco (Alvaro Martinez). They happen to be Celia’s cousins.
The two now they have the evidence, including a sprig of purple wildflowers from the quarry, that points to what Whigham did. Yet none of the dramatic hugger-mugger you’re expecting comes to pass. The reverend-who’s-really-a-criminal and Moreno’s gentle lost soul, who he strikes up a connection with, don’t fall into bed. Shannon’s Chief Moore doesn’t tail Whigham like Columbo and put the clues of the murder together one purple wildflower at a time. It’s his inclination to pin crime on people of color, even if the evidence points elsewhere.
“You’re not a big smiler, are ya?” says Shannon to Whigham. No, he’s not. Then again, “The Quarry” is one of those movies in which no one really smiles or does a lot to muster their way out of the glumness. The film’s central hook is that Whigham’s reverend, standing up in his boxy plain church, preaching in barely disguised code about his own sin, strikes a chord among the members of his poor, mostly Mexican-American congregation. They can tell that he’s as fallen as they are, and they respond. But not in a way that allows any of them to become an interesting character. In “The Quarry,” sin has its wages, but that’s all it has. It’s too dry to offer anything like temptation.