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Seitz on Sundance’s Rectify: So Old-School It Almost Seems New-School

Rectify’s straightforwardness is refreshing. Rather than use its main story as a metaphor for something else — True Blood is about vampires, but it’s really about family ties and the experience of being an Other; The Americans is about spies, but it’s really about marriage, and so forth — this Sundance Channel series is content to stick close to its hero, newly released death-row inmate Daniel Holden (Aden Young), his extended family, and his community, which is divided in its opinion of his guilt or innocence. (He was sprung on a technicality, and local law enforcement is obsessed with finding a legal reason to retry him.) The show debuted last night on Sundance and repeats Tuesdays and Thursdays. There’s nothing buzzy or sexy about it; Rectify is about what it seems to be about, an approach so old-school that it almost feels new-school.

Created and written by Ray McKinnon, a character actor best known for his stints on Deadwood and Sons of Anarchy, and shot in rural Georgia, the series has a loping rural rhythm, an understated awareness of how complicated people can be, and a subtly theatrical sense of characterization and dialogue. Although its action is directed realistically, often plainly, and the show makes the most of its lush, green locations, Rectify isn’t interested in pretending to be a documentary. Daniel, in particular, carries on like the questing hero of a Play of Ideas. His elaborate locutions and spiraling monologues suggest that McKinnon’s stint on Deadwood amounted to more than an acting credit. Milchian language abounds, along with literary references that would seem forced if the show hadn’t established that these are educated, in some cases self-educated, characters.

In the press conference following Daniel’s release after twenty years on death row, he tells assembled reporters that he became a pessimist in prison because “optimism served no useful purpose in the world where I existed. Obviously, this radical belief system was flawed, and was ironically a kind of fantasy itself.” During a flashback to Daniel’s prison stint, we see him carrying on a long conversation with another inmate, Kerwin Whitman (Johnny Ray Gill), through the wall of an adjacent cell. Whitman, who’s African-American, tells Daniel that he can’t accept his reading suggestion, Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, because he’s trying to get away from “pasty white male” literature, and expresses admiration for Daniel’s ability to meditate for long stretches, even though it’s not something Whitman could do himself. “I can’t do time the way you do time, by not doing time,” Whitman tells him. Gertrude Stein would have loved that.

Is Daniel a wrongfully convicted innocent or a guilty man released because of police incompetence that was kept under wraps for decades? Daniel’s onetime prosecutor, Senator Roland Foulkes (Michael O’Neill, a workhorse character actor I’m always happy to see), still thinks Daniel is guilty, as do other locals; that they have a selfish interest in being proved right doesn’t automatically make them wrong. It’s hard to tell if Daniel’s family thinks he’s innocent; mostly they just seem relieved to have him back in their lives, awkward as it is. Daniel’s relationship with his sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer of Mad Men and Cowboys and Aliens) is the heart of the show. She clung to the possibility of his release for twenty years, and now that she’s gotten her wish, she’s torn between gratitude for his return and awareness of how awkward it is. Daniel spent most of his sentence in solitary confinement, so naturally he withdrew into himself. When he talks to his sister, or to other relatives, he’s not entirely there, listening attentively without quite connecting.

To complicate things even more, Daniel’s mother, Janet (J-Smith Cameron), remarried while he was in prison; he has a stepfather (Bruce McKinnon), a stepbrother (Clayne Crawford), and a half-brother (Jake Austin Walker) now, and they’ve taken over the family auto-supply business that was supposed to be his birthright. He doesn’t seem too troubled by that — not right now, anyway — but his presence still disturbs what had become a well-ordered family universe. During conversations about the configuration of the family and the future of its business, Rectify takes a soft left turn into domestic drama, even domestic comedy. This is what census takers call a blended family, and now a prison-hardened rock has been dropped into it. The silver lining in this situation, according to Janet: “Nothing about this has ever been normal.”

Rectify isn’t trying to set the world on fire with filmmaking excitement. The pilot, directed by Keith Gordon (A Midnight Clear), concentrates mainly on the actors and their performances, save for moments when we dip into Daniel’s drifting mind and conversations fade out or become distorted. Future episodes continue in this vein. Any flourishes are mainly about pace and tone — slowing things down even more, zeroing in on a detail, lingering on a reaction. There’s a scene in next week’s episode in which Daniel goes to a local baseball diamond, takes his shoes off, looks around a bit, then lies down like a little kid relaxing in his backyard. His posture suggests he’s about to make snow angels in the grass. It’s a lovely moment because it’s primarily about the experience of being Daniel. It’s not rushing us to the next plot point. It’s content to be present. It breathes.

Rectify is about a man who is wrenched from the world he once knew, then returns to find it, and himself, changed almost beyond recognition. That story is so powerful all by itself that I’m looking forward to seeing the show explore it at length, at its own pace, taking time without seeming to take time.  

Photo: Sundance Channel