One of the ironies of The Quarry is the idea that to pass oneself off as a good preacher, all a man has to do is shut up and read the bible out loud. No need for sermons, or for even telling the worshipers his name. When they ask him who he is, he just says, “I’m a sinner.”

Shea Whigham plays this preacher-imposter, and just how far he can disappear into the role is what drives the tension in this moody border-town thriller. That’s true for the actor as well as the character, a drifter we first find unconscious on the side of the road. Following an early outburst of violence, the drifter takes on the identity of the traveling preacher he just killed, and by the next morning he’s standing at the pulpit of a little country church where a handful of worshipers are waiting for him to share the Word of God.

Whigham is one of those character actors who makes an impression at the edges of a story – the gentle stepdad, the crooked cop, the doomed sidekick – but it’s fun to see him take on a lead role. His face is made for stone sculpture but he radiates a ragged vulnerability that might be fear, or might be something more dangerous. His slow burn sets the tone for the movie, and it’s almost too much. There are only so many times a character can stare silently whenever someone asks him a question before the intensity shifts into silliness. The moments when he finally cracks are a relief, like a storm fully landing.

Suspicious of the rootless preacher is the small town’s chief of police, played by a gleefully menacing Michael Shannon. He towers over Whigham, blocking whole doorways with his shoulders, and his eyes glitter with predatory intelligence over small talk. He knows something besides the usual criminal activity is at work when the new preacher shows up a day before someone finds an unidentified corpse at the quarry where the drug dealers hang out. The hunter-prey dynamic between the preacher and the cop flips back and forth as one tries to stay ahead of the other without tipping his hand. This tension is heightened by the sense that Shannon and Whigham are both playing against type. An alternative cut of this film with the actors swapping roles would make for a fascinating comparison.

Underwritten at the sidelines of the story is Celia (Catalina Sandino Moreno), the caretaker of the parsonage where the preacher stays, who also happens to be sleeping with the police chief. A potential love triangle never really develops, and a late shift of focus to Celia’s perspective feels like the remnant of a storyline that got trimmed in the first act. “You’re not like the other preachers,” she tells the imposter. She’s seen some shit, we gather, and she can tell he’s not who he says he is. The same might be true of her, but we don’t get much more of her character.

Despite some threads coming loose in the third act, The Quarry is an intriguing story of people playing roles that don’t suit them, and fighting like hell not to let the mask slip. It’s the same premise as Corpus Christi, last year’s Oscar-nominated Polish film, but here the flavor of violence at the Mexican border infuses the story with a darker edge. You know the shocking bloodletting at the beginning is bound to be repeated at the end, but it’s no longer clear who deserves to die and who deserves the chance to be born again.

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