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(2020) (Shea Whigham, Michael Shannon) (R)

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Dramatic Thriller: After killing the man, a fugitive assumes the identity of a pastor who was about to start working at a church in a small West Texas town.

An alcoholic preacher, David Martin (BRUNO BICHIR), on his way to a new job leading a small church in the West Texas town of Bevel finds a never-named man (SHEA WHIGHAM) on the side of the road. He gives him a ride, but as he keeps pushing the man to open up and confess his sins, the man ends up killing David and decides to assume his identity.

Arriving in Bevel late at night, he stays in a spare bedroom offered by Celia (CATALINA SANDINO MORENO) who occasionally has police chief John Moore (MICHAEL SHANNON) over for sex. That's despite her being cousins with Valentin (BOBBY SOTO), the local drug dealer who employs his pre-teen brother, Poco (ALVARO MARTINEZ), in his line of work.

Few locals attend the church, but "David" continues to go through with the ruse, although his emotionless demeanor -- including reacting to Valentin and/or Poco having broken into "his" van -- makes Chief Moore wonder what's up with him, a sentiment shared by Celia. Things eventually come to a head when the pastor's body is found and Valentin is accused of the crime, something he knows is tied to the new man in town.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10

For anyone who thinks acting is easy, may I suggest you find any screenplay, get out your phone, and record a video of you playing out that part. If you're like most people, you'll cringe when you watch the results, and even people you think might be good at it usually come off at best as "Saturday Night Live" caricatures rather than believable characters.

Yes, it's incredibly hard to make it seem natural, and when you throw in the myriad of nuances one can apply to a part along with what the director has in mind, it can be a daunting task. At times, that's even true for seasoned performers and that's what I kept thinking while watching Shea Whigham as the dispassionate protagonist in "The Quarry."

Like Clint Eastwood's mostly emotionally constrained anti-hero character "The Man With No Name," Whigham's character likewise remains nameless, at least until he assumes the identity of the alcoholic preacher he's just killed and partially buried in, yes you guessed it -- a quarry. After that, he arrives in the small West Texas town of Bevel as David Martin, the new preacher to the barely attended church there.

I'm fine with nebulous types of characters and obviously realize those holding their cards close to their chests have secrets that are supposed to intrigue us and maintain our curiosity about how things are ultimately going to play out. Yet, much like the local townsfolk, I couldn't shake the feeling that something just didn't feel right about the character or the way the actor and/or writer/director Scott Teems decided to fashion and portray him.

Characters can be designed to make you love or hate them (or any related emotional response spanning that entire spectrum), but boredom and indifference are troublesome reactions no one wants. That's especially true in a wannabe dramatic thriller.

Alas, I just couldn't get into this tale of "The Man," his attempted ruse and what we know will be his eventual outing and/or comeuppance. And all of that boils down to the flat protagonist. Yes, I understand he's supposed to be suppressing his emotional response to what's occurred and what he's now trying to get away with, but the portrayal makes Whigham come off like an average person trying to act, not always successfully, for the first time, not the work of a professional.

It doesn't help that the trio of other central characters in the story -- Michael Shannon's world and town weary cop, Catalina Sandino as his casual lover who puts up the new preacher in a spare bedroom and Bobby Soto as her drug dealer cousin who can sense but not yet pinpoint wrongdoing in the stranger -- repeatedly point out that something feels off with the newcomer.

In Teems and co-scribe Andrew Brotzman's script (based on Damon Galgut's novel), that's supposed to represent the noose slowly tightening around his neck and is designed to make us root either for one, some or all of them discovering the truth and nailing him or him somehow managing to get away.

That's fine in concept, but it just didn't work for me either direction. Thankfully, Shannon and Sandino deliver good performances but do so in character types we've seen countless times before in plenty of movies. A novel touch or nuance here and there could have helped differentiate them, but with the protagonist never being believable to me, that could have only done so much. A deeper dig into the character might have mined something compelling or engaging, but as it stands, this "Quarry" is nothing more than rocks, dirt and dust. It rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed April 14, 2020 / Posted April 17, 2020

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