The interesting thing about Cinemax’s slate of original programming is that, for all its trappings of violence and sex, it’s an increasingly contemplative group of shows. All of their heroes—Banshee’s Lucas Hood, Outcast’s Kyle Barnes, even at times Strike Back’s Stonebridge and Scott—are individuals capable of great feats of strength, but they spend as much time dealing with the toll of their actions as they do with the actions themselves. Now, Cinemax has doubled down on this trend with its latest original series, Quarry. It simultaneously embraces internal conflict and external pulp fiction and handles both well, even though in the early goings it’d be nice to have more of the latter.
Based on the series of crime novels by Road To Perdition’s Max Allan Collins, Quarry is a period drama set in 1972 Memphis, following U.S. Marine Mac Conway (Logan Marshall-Green) home after his second tour in Vietnam. Unable to settle into his old life and dogged by rumors of participating in a civilian massacre, he attracts the attention of the mysterious Broker (Peter Mullan), who’s looking to add Mac to his portfolio of shooters. Initially resistant, Mac soon finds himself getting dragged into the contract killer life, particularly as those close to him—like his war buddy Art (Jamie Hector) and his wife, Joni (Jodi Balfour)—start to get caught up in the aftermath of the Broker’s sales pitch.
Between the unapologetic pulp fiction nature of the source material and Banshee’s Greg Yaitanes directing every episode, it would be easy to anticipate Quarry as the latest hyper-violent feather in Cinemax’s cap. The surprise then is that the show that it bears the most resemblance to is Sundance’s hyper-meditative Rectify. Showrunners Michael D. Fuller and Graham Gordy cut their teeth writing early episodes of Rectify and borrow several elements from it, right down to a subplot involving a pool and the Broker characterizing Mac as a man who “stares at stuff a lot.” It presents early on that it’s not going to a full-bore action series, and instead it’s equally interested in exploring what’s changed Mac into who he is and how this new version is going to deal with the lure of violent crime.
In the first few episodes, the balance between action and interiority is still in progress. While prior Cinemax series have used action scenes to reel the audience in and then deployed contemplative moments, Quarry reverses the order. Action scenes are doled out sparingly in the early going, and are more conventional than expected from the director of “Bullets And Tears” and “You Can’t Hide From The Dead.” Instead, the focus is all on Mac’s conflicted feelings about the world he’s in and the trauma he’s brought back from war—a familiar journey that Quarry tries to dress up with symbolic flashes, Mac’s world broken up by sights of people suspended underwater and a floating Vietnamese mask. The patience of Rectify’s pace is a vital part of its storytelling, but marrying that pace to a man’s journey into contract killing makes for a more uneasy union.
Some of the responsibility for that uneasiness falls on Marshall-Green, who doesn’t have the same near-alien intensity that Aden Young had in the early goings of Rectify and frequently comes across as sullen as opposed to contemplative. He’s not helped by some of the dialogue in his scenes with Art and Joni, bogged down by stock expositional responses to points valid and otherwise. Most of the Cinemax male leads—Clive Owen excepted—have had a shaky start as they got to what made their characters tick, and Mac becomes more compelling as he moves past hurdles and allows instinct to rule him. The best moments of the early episodes come when something goes south on a job and he’s forced to improvise, and it’s there that the killer of Collins’ books starts to emerge: the pragmatic survivor, the one who knows “you only last if you don’t care.”
While Marshall-Green has the weightier material to play, the actors portraying bad guys are the ones having the most fun, and consequently are the most interesting to watch. The clear standout is Damon Herriman as the Broker’s top operative Buddy, bringing the same weaselly charm he gave to Justified for years but compounding it with far more ruthless intelligence than he did Dewey Crowe. A sequence with his mother—the always excellent Ann Dowd—is easily one of the best moments of the early episodes, conveying layers to the character that makes you want to spend more time with him just to see how he thinks. Mullan follows up his great role on Top Of The Lake as another charmingly ruthless crime boss, projecting the air of being in total control and enjoying it, an attitude shared by henchmen Edoardo Ballerini and Mustafa Shakir. It’s enough to hope that, whatever conflicts Mac is dealing with, he gets over them so he can spend more time sparring with his new co-workers.
Whatever problems Quarry has in the early plotting, it has none of those in the setting. The show gets an authentic feel by shooting in and around Memphis, and the steady hand of Yaitanes directing every episode means it’s tonally consistent in its constant heat and claustrophobia. True to the show’s Memphis roots, music is woven throughout—record players and radios pump out a steady stream of diegetic music, and regular live music scenes are some of the most engaging moments of various episodes. The world feels not only lived in but also resilient, one that survived the upheavals of the past decade and is heading into the new with cautious optimism. (An optimism that Quarry seems determined to grind down; every optimistic George McGovern speech on television is matched with news such as that of the Munich Olympics massacre.)
Toward the middle of the pilot, the Broker jokingly bestows the nickname of “Quarry” on Mac, as he’s “hollowed out from the inside.” Quarry the man may be hollow, but Quarry the show isn’t. The cast and the creative team all grow more comfortable as they get pulled deeper and deeper into the Broker’s games, and with a dozen novels to date in the Quarry series—which Fuller and Gordy only borrow from sparingly—there’s a lot of raw material for Quarry to draw from. Mixing Rectify patience with Banshee action is a tall order for any program, and while Quarry isn’t there yet, it gives the feeling that it won’t take too long to reach that point.