Quarry, a new Cinemax series premiering on Friday, starts off like a lean, mean action show. As it proceeds, however, Quarry becomes all that and much more: a soulful examination of romance and faithfulness; a story about race relations in the 1970s South; a conspiracy thriller; and a show with great pop, rock, and soul music coursing through its heart.
Based on a series of hard-boiled novels by Max Allan Collins, Quarry introduces us to Logan Marshall-Green as Mac Conway, a Vietnam vet who’s come home to Memphis in 1972 after two tours of duty. He returns to the woman he loves, Joni (Jodi Balfour), only to find their relationship strained, a decent job hard to find, and a tempter in the form of a man who calls himself The Broker (Peter Mullan), an eerily serene businessman who hires guys with weapons skills to do freelance hits — hired killings. The Broker, to whom Mac owes a financial debt, gives Mac assignments ($4,000 per kill knocked off what he owes) and a nickname — Quarry, because that’s where The Broker meets our man and, um, Mac is a man who’s as hard-edged as a chunk of jagged rock.
Working from this pulp-fiction start, writers Graham Gordy and Michael D. Fuller (who’ve written for the great Rectify) and director Greg Yaitanes (who’s directed for the great Banshee) have come up with something far more deep, rich, and searching than just an action show. (Though let me stress: You will see some terrifically staged shootouts, chases, and frightening moments.)
Like Banshee, the narrative of Quarry takes place in rough real time, each new episode beginning where the preceding one left off. We meet other men drawn into The Broker’s orbit, including Buddy, a mama’s-boy sadist who swings a baseball bat bristled with nails, played by Damon Herriman (Justified’s sainted Dewey Crowe!) — and his mama is played superbly by Ann Dowd (The Leftovers). There’s also Moses (The Night Of’s Mustafa Shakir), a killer with a kind side, who also plays a mean bass guitar in soul-music recording sessions that take place in a Memphis studio that looks an awful lot to me like Royal Studios, where producer Willie Mitchell cut the greatest hits of Al Green.
Quarry develops complex characterizations of people such as Joni, who’s no stand-by-your-man action-show cliché: a writer for the Memphis Press-Scimitar newspaper, we note a framed copy of a rave review she’s written about local-boys-made-great, the band Big Star. (I know Joni is referred to as part of the paper’s “arts and culture” staff, but I like to think of her as one of the few rock critics who’ve ever held a crucial role in a TV series.) The show scatters cultural references like this all the time, just waiting for you to pick up: the way, for example, Mac’s car passes a billboard for Sam Peckinpah’s underrated 1972 Steve McQueen thriller The Getaway, or when director Yaitanes’s camera pans across a table to show us Mac’s reading material: the cold-blooded John D. MacDonald thriller The Last One Left. Scattered through the show as well are excellent character actors such as Tom Noonan and Bill Irwin — Quarry is marvelously cast.
As I watched Quarry, I was drawn into its increasingly intricate story, but also lifted away by its artful evocations of some of the great 1970s B-movies it evokes, such as Who’ll Stop The Rain (1978) and two Paul Schrader specials, Rolling Thunder (1977) and Blue Collar (1978). But the bottom line is, it doesn’t matter whether you get the references or not: Quarry is a startlingly good, absorbing new show to sink down into, deeply.
Quarry airs on Fridays at 10 p.m. on Cinemax.