Producers:  Laura D. Smith, Kristin Mann,  Director: Scott Teems   Screenplay: Scott Teems and Andrew Brotzman   Cast: Shea Whigham, Michael Shannon, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Bobby Soto, Bruno Bichir, Alvaro Martinez, Jimmy Gonzalez, Abel Becerra, Anthony Reynolds, Rose Bianco, Julia Vera and David Jensen   Distributor: Lionsgate

Grade:  C-

This is the second screen adaptation of Damon Galgut’s well-regarded 1995 novel.  The first, directed by Marion Hansel in 1998, retained the book’s South African setting.  Scott Teems’s version transfers the story to South Texas.  One could argue that the change of locale was ill-advised, but it can’t be blamed for how poorly the film turned out.  “The Quarry” is a dreary, dull slog through territory that wants to be Dostoevskian but misses the mark by a substantial margin. 

That’s the case despite a strong cast.  Shea Whigham plays a nameless fellow who’s first encountered walking, disheveled and depressed, along a stretch of road in the middle of nowhere; he’s haunted by visions of a burning house and is clearly on the run from the law.  He’s picked up by the driver of the solitary vehicle that goes by—David Martin (Bruno Bichir), a preacher on his way to assume leadership of a church in a little border town.  He’s also an alcoholic.

The two men stop at a quarry outside the town, and get into a quarrel when the preacher prods the other man about his past and offers him advice about changing his ways.  The man goes into a rage and kills David.  After burying the body in the quarry he decides to steal the dead man’s van and assume his identity—and his post in town.  That leads to his introduction to Chief Moore (Michael Shannon), head of the hamlet’s police force, and Celia (Catalina Sandino Moreno), the woman who’s the caretaker of the tiny, ramshackle church and the landlady of the pastor.

Amazingly, though he’s making things up as he goes along, the faux preacher proves a success with his strange declamations of Holy Writ, with their zealous emphasis on forgiveness. Although some of the congregants are Spanish-speakers who can’t understand what he’s saying, those who do are deeply moved.  (His ethnicity points up the racial divisions that, of course, run through the story.)

Moore becomes involved when the false David’s van is burglarized.  He concludes that the perpetrators are Valentin (Bobby Soto), a local drug dealer, and his younger brother Poco (Alvaro Martinez), and pursues them with the sort of intensity Shannon is so good at embodying; in the process he finds that the stuff they’ve stolen includes some bloody clothes. When  David’s corpse is discovered, therefore, Moore charges them with his murder as well.  Over time, however, he comes to suspect—like the brothers—that the preacher might be the guilty party.  Meanwhile “David” struggles over whether he should confess or let innocent men die for his crime.

At least we assume that the preacher is struggling, since apart from the ferocity with which he murders Martin, he spends most of the time just brooding grimly, and despite Whigham’s efforts to give him some shading he remains an opaque figure—a quality accentuated by the ponderous pace favored by Teems and his editor Saira Haider.  Some sporadic energy is provided by Bichir and Soto, but Moreno falls into similarly lethargic mode.

That leaves Shannon to inject a bit of vitality into what is otherwise a dourly deliberate piece, which aims for a level of depth—especially in a final twist—that it never earns.  This is hardly one of the actor’s better performances, but his snarling does provide sporadic respite from the otherwise unremitting gloom, to which cinematographer Michael Alden Lloyd, production designer Erin Magill and composer Heather McIntosh also contribute.

“The Quarry” might have the benefit of inducing one to investigate Galgut’s novel.  On its own, however, it’s a pretty tedious exercise in crime and angst.