Comfortable and Furious

The Quarry (1998)

Genre exercises are a way to conceal deeper motives within film. While we are occupied with the stimulation of basic emotions (action film-anger, horror-fear, romance-stupidity), other messages have a way of sneaking past or leaving a greater impression than if they were fed to the audience in a more obvious fashion. The Quarry is ostensibly a noir drama; a man who remains unnamed is on the run from police, adopts the identity of a priest, and hides in a rural town in the Northern Cape region of South Africa. The film is minimalist almost to a fault, with a lack of any real backstory for the characters. A yawning echo chamber is created with empty space where background details would normally serve as entertaining distraction. During those voids, the mind is left to wander and wonder why any of these people are here. Without plot points to serve as guideposts, the audience projects its own fears and anxieties upon The Quarry, and this is where the film excels. We are drawn along by the spare story and led into the layers of subtext like a vacuum draws air.

The Stranger begins and ends the film on the run; from the very start we know where this is heading, and the vanishing point provides a portent of sustained anxiety. He has no backstory; we do not know what he did or if he indeed has a plan. We know only that he has escaped and does not intend to stop running. As portrayed by John Lynch, he is gaunt, laconic, and a fascinating cipher. He strikes one as a danger, but only by virtue of desperation. He also carries a deeply buried guilt that ties into the strongly religious subtext. On the road he is given a lift by a priest who is on the way to a rural township to replace a departed minister. The ride and gifts of food and cigarettes would seem a kind gesture, but there are no saints here. Everyone has their reasons for what is given and taken. The Stranger kills him and takes the man’s identity; this is not a surprise, as every action seems telegraphed ahead of time in a miasma of dread. He continues to the church where he is taken in and he rests on actual sheets for what appears to be the first time in years. Of course, there is no rest here as the authorities still search for him, his truck is broken into by a thief who learns that The Stranger is no priest, and a sardonic police captain takes an interest in him.

Identity is malleable, and in The Quarry it is clear that Who We Are is not as important as What We Seem. The Man is white, and so receives a certain measure of trust; this is a truism in South Africa then and now. The captain greets the new priest: “I was expecting a Coloured Man.” He responds: “We all are by now, in this country.” Long through its history South Africa has had a rocky relationship with race and identity. From the violent interactions between European colonials and the San/Khoikhoi peoples on the cape and later the Bantu-speaking peoples of the eastern regions, to the Byzantine laws that created the separation of Apartheid, there has been the assumption of white superiority. Whites receive better education and resources as they are expected to utilized them best; they are above reproach. Blacks and the various subgroups designed to keep Blacks, Coloureds, Asians, and Indians at each others’ throats are assumed to be at war with Whites, and this is not really untrue. There is some honesty to acknowledging the tribalism inherent to our human species, but the legal structures were designed to oppress as much as keep separate, and so the results were disastrous.

In The Quarry, the Man is a killer, but is assumed to be innocent with no real discussion on the matter. A Coloured man (half-White, half-Black – the term is in correct use today and has a different connotation from the American term) is blamed for the murder when a body is found, and the evidence is circumstantial, but his color is most damning. This is not unusual, but The Man is seized by guilt in a way that is individual, but is also a commentary on South Africa’s discomfort with its racist past. The Man is an unknown quantity, and so other characters project their own prejudices on him as an audience surrogate; at the same time, we do the same thing, writing The Stranger’s backstory as the movie goes on. Even today, people acknowledge the unfairness about the past without coming to real terms with it. We see the same phenomenon in the United States with Whites and Blacks ever at odds with how to deal with economic and social disparities between race while assuming all is equal after a Black Presidency. Whites cannot deal practically with the circumstances of the past that gave them an advantage, while Blacks cannot come to grips with the ways their culture has been corrupted and become counterproductive. The dialogue is stifled, our mutual loathing becomes a silent, withdrawn geniality.

There is a strong religious subtext to The Quarry, though there does not appear to be an actual God at work. The Stranger is a priest and despite knowing not a word of verse, takes to the task well. He is seen as a good man, and wears the frock skillfully, his sermons fed by his intense fear and guilt draw full crowds. The Baptist Church provides him with a haven, and temporarily forgives him his history, but he is on the run even when stationary. Fate hangs over his shoulder, as expressed by a particularly depressing service quoting heavily from Jeremiah. The police captain is intrigued, and glimpses the shame that bleeds off The Stranger in waves. Still, the guy is a white priest, and must be beyond reproach. This country has deep religious roots, and the relationship the Whites have with God have been useful in both justifying subjugation of inferior races and assuaging any guilt coming from inequality. The Battle of Blood River in 1838 was a retaliatory strike against King Dingane for the slaughter of Piet Retief and hundreds of unarmed settlers who were invited to dine peacefully with the Zulus. When Andre Pretorius’s foray resulted in thousands of dead Zulu warriors and only two minor injuries in his own camp, it was clearly a Covenant with God to dominate this land. Though muted today, these beliefs remain buried close to the surface. It is an uncomfortable history, but religion is both a salve and an albatross upon the people of South Africa. When The Stranger’s church is burned to the ground, it is clear that religion is no longer relevant to where the nation is headed, and provides no protection from the past.

The Quarry was made in 1998, after the collapse of Apartheid and in the midst of South Africa’s economic free-fall. It is not hopeful about what would happen when the inevitable arrived. The Man is destined for a violent end, and this is a commentary on the uncertain future of South Africa. The Afrikaner police captain pursues the Stranger, who is running out of road; a new country is about to emerge from Apartheid, and its history may destroy its hope for a peaceful future. Though the handover of power to the African National Congress was seen as a triumph of reconciliation, thousands died in the political strife during elections, and even today South Africa is effectively a one-party state. A Tswana gentleman once told me that democracy was of dubious value. “One man, one vote means everyone votes for one man.” Economic differences between the racial groups are actually worse now than during the reign of the National Party.

The Quarry has dual meaning. A man is slain, his body dumped in a rock quarry, a common sight in a nation that made its fortune off mining. The Stranger is forever pursued, he is the quarry of the police. A country with an awkward sense of itself is chased by its own history, by fits and starts coming to terms with a past steeped in religion, violence, racism, and acceptance. Lynch gives a memorable performance embodying a nonspecific Man both frightened and resigned, and a symbol well rendered. When he is compelled to preside over a funeral and realizes that he will shortly be presiding over two more that he will cause, he is driven to act. There is no practical way to bury the past. It is in the moments of self-destruction that we as individuals and as a society can move towards a greater understanding of ourselves and the world around us. As a symbol, he silently reconciles with the black man who faces execution under a racist system, and they head off together to an uncertain future which may be more honest, but in which nothing is promised.