Holes in the Heart

I wondered: how do you get a word that means both the place from where something is mined—and the thing that is mined—as well as the prey that is pursued? Indeed, the word “quarry” has a dual etymology. The latter meaning is from the Latin word (via Anglo-French and Middle English) for the skin on which the entrails of an animal were left for the hounds that pursued it. The former meaning comes from the Latin (again by way of French and Middle English) for hewn (square) stone. Two different Middle English words converging in modern English, spelled the same.

That strange convergence is behind the double meaning of the title for the movie The Quarry (2020; Redbox, or for rent on Amazon Prime). This one had been on my list for a while for two reasons: Michael Shannon and a preacher. There is a short list of actors whose films I will always watch, and Michael Shannon is on it (see any of Jeff Nichols’ films, especially Take Shelter). Shea Whigham (who was also in Take Shelter, and both Shannon and Whigham were recently in Waco) is the preacher who shows up in the town where Shannon’s police chief, John Moore, knows everyone and everything. On Letterboxd, one reviewer wrote that both turned in terrific performances, “even if they do spend most of the time having a mumble-off.”

At a glance, the majority of reviews go something like this: Shannon and Whigham are great, but the story is too convoluted and aimless, attempting to find profundity, but unable to deliver. It is definitely a slow, somber, somnolent burn. It may not be everything it could have been, but I do think there’s more beneath the muddy surface than is immediately apparent.

[SPOILERS]

The opening scene sets up the contradictions in all the characters: an alcoholic pastor (Bruno Bichir), on his way to start a new life in a new town, finds a man lying beside the road, picks him up, and feeds him in a cafe. When they stop at the eponymous quarry, the man wants nothing to do with the preacher’s exhortations to confession and forgiveness for whatever sins he’s carrying and from which he’s trying to run. We can sense what the preacher cannot: this guy is not the sort you want to push, because he will do something he doesn’t really want to do.

The man murders the preacher, whose name we discover from a driver’s license and a certificate of theological education, and the rest of the movie is a tense, razor’s edge of wondering how long it will be until the man’s deceit is found out. In that way, it has similarities to Corpus Christi, where a man running from a criminal past ends up too deep in his religious deception to come clean. There, too, taking the pulpit is the result of an accident of circumstances. In the case of Whigham’s fake preacher, it’s left to us to speculate on his motives. Perhaps he has none and his actions are simply him following the path most clearly marked. He has no better or other place to go; might as well see where this road leads.

The quarry and the quarry. Sheriff Moore gradually has the clues put before him, although he has trouble believing that the “preacher” is actually a murderer. It’s the perfect hiding place. But the preacher eventually is boxed in, unable to escape. He finds that it’s not only the sheriff who is pursuing him, but his guilt over both the murder of David Martin and the fact that if he doesn’t come clean, someone else is going down for the murder. And the weight of that guilt builds and builds until it’s too much.

How can that burden be relieved, and who can relieve it? At the beginning, the man tells David Martin that Martin is not the one who can forgive him for his past sin (the nature of which we only find out late in the film). And at the penultimate moment of the film, Valentin tells him the inverse: I am not the one who can forgive. The sheriff’s conception of the universe is a step beyond both: “Forgiveness only works in a world where people learn their lessons. But they don’t. Not here anyway.”

Those three statements mark out the boundaries of the question of forgiveness. In fact, The Quarry comes as close as anything I’ve seen recently to considering the true nature of forgiveness. Presumably, David Martin can’t forgive the man because he isn’t the one against whom the man has sinned. On the other hand, Valentin can’t be the one to forgive because all he sees is vengeance. The sheriff wants to see something change, if there is to be actual forgiveness.

Whether intentional or not, the David Martin impersonator gives the Christian answer to the question of forgiveness. On the theological side, we fall into the question of the scribes in Mark 2, after Jesus forgives the sins of the paralytic: “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (2:7). On the side of human reason, we follow the sheriff, that forgiveness only works in a world where people learn from their mistakes and change.

But the Christian has a much more provocative view, and a dual answer to where forgiveness comes from, and how the burden of guilt can be relieved. In one sense, neither David Martin nor Valentin are the ones who can forgive—certainly not from themselves. The man’s killing of his wife has nothing to do with Martin. How could he forgive it, were it to be confessed? Further, the sin is in the past; it’s over and done. There is no making it right. And the man has already pushed Valentin to his death. The only thing left is for Valentin to take a life for a life.

For Christians, however, true forgiveness comes from outside us, from the Jesus who both forgave and healed. And that is indeed a scandalous forgiveness, which is not predicated or dependent on a person’s change. It is a forgiveness that is often abused, misused, and thrown away. Forgiveness doesn’t “work” in this world. It only works because it is of a different world.

But forgiveness also comes through Jesus’ representatives, as Jesus commands His Apostles to forgive, and the sins they forgive are actually and really forgiven. The man who has taken on the impersonation of the preacher has it exactly right: “I just say the words. It’s not me you’re here for. I don’t know what to say.” This is a true impersonation of Jesus’ representative, even of Jesus Himself: “In the stead and by the command of my Lord, Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins.” In the stead; impersonation, though with the authority and commission of the One who is being impersonated, who is Himself present in His own words. I just say the words. It’s not me you’re here for. It’s Him.

There is, that I could find, no Bevel, Texas. But there is a Bevel (or two) in one of Flannery O’Connor’s stories, The River. The Reverend Bevel Summers is the fiery preacher to whom Mrs. Connin intends to bring Harry Ashfield. When she tells Harry that she only knows his last name, and asks for his first name, he tells her (though “he had never thought at any time of changing it”), “Bevel.”

At the river, the preacher says, “’If you ain’t come for Jesus, you ain’t come for me. If you just come to see can you leave your pain in the river, you ain’t come for Jesus. You can’t leave your pain in the river,’ he said, ‘I never told nobody that.’” But Bevel/Harry knows that whatever is happening in that river is no joke. “Where he lived everything was a joke. From the preacher’s face, he knew immediately that nothing the preacher said or did was a joke.” And because he believes that the baptism has done something, he decides to follow the river all the way this time, all the way to the Kingdom of God:

“He plunged under once and this time, the waiting current caught him like a long gentle hand and pulled him swiftly forward and down. For an instant he was overcome with surprise: then since he was moving quickly and knew that he was getting somewhere, all his fury and fear left him.”

“Quarry,” in the sense of the entrails left for the hounds, probably is connected to the French word for heart, cœur. And the man, the quarry, is finally caught at the end of the movie. And I want it to be true: he is caught not by Valentin, not by the sheriff, not by his guilt, but by the Hound of Heaven, who never tires of the pursuit. His surprise at the knife in his heart, perhaps, lasts only an instant: then, since he was moving quickly and knew that he was getting somewhere, all his fury and fear left him.

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