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TV Tonight: Rectify

Sundance's meditative drama about a man released from death row is pokey, atmospheric, and the opposite of plot-driven. And it's one of the best things I expect to see on TV all year.

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Sundance Channel

Rectify, Sundance channel’s new drama about a man released after 19 years in prison for murder, is potentially a timely drama in more ways than one. First, TV is besotted with murderers right now: murder always sells on TV, of course, but shows like Dexter, Hannibal, and The Following are now dedicated to inhabiting the point of view of killers and asking why they do what they do. Likewise, while murder has always been a sad fact of American life, Newtown and the Boston bombings–especially the latter, in which a suspect was captured alive–have raised questions of evil, retribution, and how the larger society deals with the aftermath of violence.

And yet the greatest thing about Sundance’s haunting, transporting Rectify is that it’s willing to be timeless, and to take its time. It’s pokey, atmospheric, and the opposite of plot-driven. And it’s one of the best things I expect to see on TV all year.

Rectify could have been a thriller, or a mystery, or a creepshow. Daniel Holden (Aden Young) has been released from death row for a rape and murder for which there was circumstantial evidence and apparently a confession. Now DNA evidence has overturned his conviction without entirely exonerating him: he may have done it, or he may have not, but as he’s sent home to re-start his life, the truth is not crystal clear, neither to us nor the folks in his small Georgia hometown.

Whether Daniel is guilty is, of course, a big deal to the neighbors who knew the victim and the prosecutor’s office that still wants a conviction. But Rectify, written and created by actor Ray McKinnon (Deadwood), shows that it is not interested in the what of Daniel’s crime so much as the how, why, and what’s next of its aftermath. (Even the similarly arty and empathetic Top of the Lake, which just preceded it on Sundance, was driven by a whodunit in the foreground.) It just sets us down in the same territory as its characters—Daniel, family, survivors—and asks: when life asks you to go on without certainty or closure, what do you do?

The six episodes of Rectify (there may be future seasons, but the season also stands alone as a work) follow Daniel over just one week, and yet the storytelling is as deliberate and unhurried as shows like The Following are frantic and rushed. We see Daniel’s family, already torn by his conviction, welcome him back while dealing with the sudden limelight and anger of their neighbors. Their reactions vary wildly: his sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer) is fiercely loyal to him; his stepbrother Ted (Clayne Crawford) suspects Daniel and resents the disruption to their family; Ted’s fervent Christian wife Tawney (Adelaide Clemens) takes a sincere interest in Daniel’s soul.

And what to make of Daniel? He has a taciturn, soft-spoken reserve that first seems like shell-shock; it’s as if his personality itself has been locked in a dark room for 20 years and is blinking as it adjusts to daylight. But it becomes clear that, to some extent, this is the way he’s always been. His quietness could be politeness or creepiness, the reserve of a thoughtful man or the “keeps to himself” silence of a psychopath. (You can therefore see how it’s plausible that he may have snapped and committed a rape-murder, or have been confused and coerced into confessing to one under emotional strain.) Young’s performance is spell-binding, raw and open while also enigmatic. You’re not sure anybody has ever known entirely what’s gone on in Daniel’s head, but what is clear is that, guilty or innocent, his every step in the free world takes intense concentration.

Whether Daniel is actually guilty or innocent is a subplot, not the main plot here, because Rectify is trying to tell a psychological story rather than a polemical one. It’s not asking how a guilty man deals with life on the outside after escaping punishment. It’s not asking how an innocent man deals with freedom after two decades of wrongful incarceration. It’s just curious how a man–period–adjusts to mundane life after 19 years of being brutalized and powerless, deserved or not.

Mostly, it involves deliberate work and discipline. That shows in obvious ways, as he and his family are harassed by neighbors convinced he’s still guilty. But it’s also the little things. It’s walking through a Walmart, where Daniel seems to be gingerly exploring an alien planet–the endless choices are like an intoxicating atmosphere, too rich in oxygen. It’s being hugged, and returning the hug for an uncomfortably long time, which he explains apologetically: “It does something to you, not to be touched in any positive way for so long. You begin to vacillate between being repelled by touch and seeking it out in any form, even the most–negative.”

But Rectify is equally interested in the people around Daniel, which it grants equal humanity whether they support him or resent him. Everyone in this small town is being asked to do an impossible thing: they knew the woman who died and now have to accept her “killer” back, or they have to try to help a loved one back with the active hostility of their neighbors. Everyone here has been badly served, done an injustice; they just don’t know how, or which kind, but they have to struggle on anyway. When, say, Daniel walks into a diner late at night and the staff eyes him up, reluctant to leave a waitress alone with him, you may sympathize with Daniel or the staff or everyone, but Rectify won’t let you blame any of them.

The easy thing–and probably the more popular thing–would be for Rectify to make its story about giving its characters and us an answer: revealing Daniel at the end of the first episode as a secret psychopath, or focusing on the hunt for the real killer, or throwing us one twist after another to keep us off balance. That might draw more viewers, on a bigger network than Sundance.

Instead, it tells a deliberate, meditative, beautiful story, but one that is definitely not for everyone. (After a couple episodes to adjust, I loved Rectify–but I loved Tree of Life, so take that for what it’s worth.) It’s all about how circumstances can make mundane life an overwhelming challenge. “When everything is out of the ordinary,” Daniel explains as he struggles to adjust, “it can be too much sometimes.”

By the standards of most TV crime stories, the meditative Rectify may instead seem like too little. But it’s entrancing at showing how, in some circumstances, just getting through a day is drama enough.