“I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will work.” Flannery O’Connor
In the latest film from director and screenwriter Scott Teems titled The Quarry, the audience gets a glimpse of how he is “a Flannery [O’Connor] man at heart, and . . . [he] likes his stories in smaller doses.”
To understand Teems as a director, I believe it is vital to recognize the central motif of O’Connor’s work that has made her a timeless storyteller: the violence of grace. For O’Connor, and by proxy for Teems, violence has a unique ability to carry the message of redemption. We live in a world where the names of Ahmaud Aubrey, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd have been added to a long list of others who have been the victims of senseless, meaningless, chaotic violence.
The course of the film demonstrates that the Man is wrestling with the Gospel.How, then, can the use of violence in a narrative help make sense of violence in the world? Jonathan Baumbach said of O’Connor, “redemption is possible only through an extreme act, an act of absolute, irrevocable sacrifice.” Another way of saying this would be to use the words of Fleming Rutledge in The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ:
Christianity does not recommend suffering for its own sake, and it is part of a Christian’s task in the world to alleviate the suffering of others. By no stretch of the imagination, however, could Christianity ever be said to recommend the avoidance of suffering in the cause of love and justice. Perhaps the clearest way to sum this up is to say that Christian faith, when anchored in the preaching of the cross, recognizes and accepts the place of suffering in the world for the sake of the kingdom of God.
We look to violence in narratives to help us understand the senseless violence that takes place in the world because the crux of our faith is in a God who willingly became a victim of senseless violence in order to bring restoration to His creation. Teems’s latest film, with a runtime of only 98 minutes, gives us a short story that powerfully portrays the way violence can be transformative in the life of an individual whose own senseless violence has led to his destruction.
The Quarry comes from a screenwriter who gained a following through the medium of telling stories over a long period of time through television, which he references he is grateful for in the article he wrote for Image Journal. Teems is a man of faith who grew up in Georgia where “religion is baked into your being.” He was one of the writers responsible for the Peabody Award–winning television series Rectify, a show about a wrongly accused man who was released from death row and the effects the broken justice system had on the characters.
The film is a slow-burning western that takes place in Texas. It is loosely based on the novel of the same name by South African author Damon Galgut. Where Teems begins to break from the source material is not so much a matter of region, but in exploration of the interrelationships of faith, violence, and racism in the West. Like Flannery O’Connor, Teems explores these themes within the context of the Southern Gothic genre, which is characterized by The Oxford Research Encyclopedia as having “the presence of irrational, horrific, and transgressive thoughts, desires, and impulses; grotesque characters; dark humor, and an overall angst-ridden sense of alienation.”
Teems wastes no time introducing the horrific and irrational aspects of the film. Within the first 20 minutes, we witness the brutal murder of Fr. David Martin (Bruno Bichir) by the Man (Shea Whigham, who remains nameless throughout the entire film). During the murder, the Man cuts his hand, creating a faux stigmata which signals that Christ is present even within the darkness and brokenness of a murderer on the run. A stranger wandering into town with no name is nothing new for a film, especially a western (think the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood), but the plot differs in that we have some concept of where this stranger comes from and know that he is on the run for committing a crime.
Under the direction of Teems, the audience is continually shown images of a fire, images that harken back to the memory of the Man’s past crime. We are also introduced to Moore (Michael Shannon), the chief of police who is investigating who broke into the van the Man stole from Martin after murdering him. Immediately, the Chief suspects Poco and Valentin (Alvaro Martinez and Bobby Soto respectively), two young Mexican boys who are known criminals. They happen to be the nephews of Cecilia (Catalina Sandino Moreno) who is the housekeeper for the parsonage where the Man is staying.
Irony and dark humor can be found in the scenes in which the Man has to perform the duties of a clergy without having any formal training. His sermons are readings of large chunks of Scripture with no commentary, and the congregants relate. Perhaps this is commentary on evangelical churches that try to create experiences with clever sermon series and entertaining music. One parishioner says, “We have never had someone speak to us this way before.” A woman realizes her unworthiness and need of salvation simply because of the writings of Paul. After the “sermon,” she asks to be baptized. Just as the baptism celebration takes place, the authorities find the body of the real Fr. David Martin. The central conflict of the film lies with the Man, who is willing to allow the boys to take the blame for the murder, and the chief, who senses that things do not add up but chooses to allow the prosecution of Poco and Valentin to go forward.
The conflict within this story is one that America is all too familiar with. A minority with a record is decided by society to be guilty before proven innocent. As much as the film explores religion, it explores America’s bloodthirst for blaming the Other and rationalizing our fears of people who are unlike us. Much ink has been spilt over the recent Ahmaud Arbery case, but it bears mentioning in relation to The Quarry. Arbery’s case and countless other minorities who have been killed either by police or private citizens without just cause have been justified by white people who then look back at the criminal misdemeanors of the victim.
This is the case of Poco and Valentin in the film. They are both clearly petty criminals and are found with the body of Father Martin. Stealing from the wrong van caused them to be accused of Father Martin’s death. The conflict builds when the Man is asked to testify and cannot acknowledge his name. His “sermons” began with 1 Timothy:
This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting. Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen. (1 Timothy 1:15–17 KJV)
The violent crucifixion of Christ is the means of grace. In order to accept it, we are faced with the realization of who we are and what we have done.The course of the film demonstrates that the Man is wrestling with the Gospel. His act of violence has prepared him to “accept his moment of grace”—but he is unprepared to accept it just yet. Before the trial, Chief Moore has a conversation with the Man. The chemistry between Shannon and Whigham is brilliant. When the Man tries to defend the falsely accused Valentin, the conversation harkens back to Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Chief Moore replies to him, “Last I checked I was white. Jesus made things too easy—forgiveness all you got to do is ask, nobody’s got to be responsible for what they’ve done.”
O’Connor conveyed the same idea this way in her story:
“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead,” The Misfit continued, “and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness,” he said and his voice had become almost a snarl.
The Man won’t admit that he is the real murderer. He’s not ready to accept that Jesus really could raise the dead and “throw everything off balance.” Nor can Chief Moore acknowledge his racism toward the “illegals that changed their small town”; after all, his lover is Cecilia (Poco and Valentin’s aunt), and to him, that offsets the brutal beatings he orders to coerce a confession from the boys. Our collective unwillingness to admit to our sins, no matter how awful they are, prevents the violence of the Cross from having its resurrecting work in our lives.
Once Valentin realizes that the Man won’t tell the truth that would literally set him free, he uses a shiv to stab an officer and runs out of the church where the trial is being held. The church empties, leaving the Man standing at the pulpit of an empty building wrestling with all that has transpired. The film fades to black, and Valentin and the Man both wake up in a boat floating out in the water. The Man breaks down, crying, begging Valentin for forgiveness. He has finally accepted the need for repentance and grace. He confesses that he caught his wife in the arms of another man, killed them both and burned the house down. He seeks forgiveness from Valentin for putting him in the position of being accused for the murder of Fr. Martin. In a final O’Connor-esque twist, Valentin rightly tells the Man, “I am not the one who can forgive.” He then kills the Man, setting him free from all the sin and pain he has caused.
We are all in need of grace, and real grace comes with a price. The violent crucifixion of Christ is the means of grace. In order to accept it, we are faced with the realization of who we are and what we have done. Awareness of our own sinfulness violently awakens us to our need for a new life. The racial violence that white people in America have systemically participated in is beginning to be confronted, but not soon enough. As a white man, I know that many of us struggle with accepting that there are good and bad things about our heritage. We must confront the bad and acknowledge that we have relatives who have been complicit in violent racism. We must give a voice to the marginalized and confront our own complicity in racist acts by not renouncing them sooner.
White Evangelical leaders are beginning to help the Church process how to approach racial reconciliation. An example of confronting these issues was recently written by a pastor friend of mine, James Ross, “I Am Not Racist, but Racism Lives in Me.” Pastors and lay leaders have a responsibility to examine the places in our hearts where repentance needs to take place. White Christians specifically are in need of a deeper understanding of the violence of the cross. In my own life and ecclesiological tradition, I believe suffering is often overlooked. Minorities often have a deeper understanding of suffering that many of us are just now becoming aware of. As the message of the cross of Christ takes root in our lives, it should lead us to work with our brothers and sisters to help their voices be heard in order to proclaim the salvific message of grace. We must stop being complacent about the “suffering of others for its own sake” and be willing to take on the suffering of our brothers and sisters who have been made in the image of God for the sake of the Kingdom of God. For far too long we have been complacent. May God have mercy on us for doing so, and may we model individual repentance that will lead to the changes that are necessary for us to deal with systemic cultural sins. The individual and corporate sins of our culture must be confronted, and only then can we be forgiven by “the One who can forgive.”