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One of the most mesmerizing and memorable aspects of Rectify, the new drama series from the Sundance Channel, is how the camera lingers on the face of its star, Aden Young, as he plays a man who was just freed from 19 years on death row and now tries to understand the world outside.
It’s a magnificent turn for Young, who is handed an incredibly difficult task in Rectify, the story of a Daniel Holden, who at 18 is convicted of raping and murdering his girlfriend in a small Southern town, only to have that charge overturned by DNA evidence almost two decades later.
Almost every movie or television series about a convict getting freed begins with the man celebrating his release and either taking the happy route of starting his life again with family and friends or coming out with a vengeance, hell bent at retribution or a return to his wild ways. In almost every portrayal, there is a minimal amount of adjustment, like however many years in between incarceration and freedom were forgotten by knocking back a whiskey and beer in the local bar, plus a few back slaps from old friends.
In Rectify, which begins Monday at 9 p.m., series creator and writer Ray McKinnon, along with Breaking Bad executive producers Melissa Bernstein and Mark Johnson, have focused on the life-altering strangeness of that situation, how the passage of time – especially for a dead man walking – is almost too much to bear, an overwhelming sensory overload of unexpected new discoveries and old, familiar memories and sensations that were taken for granted.
That’s where the real beauty rests in Rectify, which purposefully slows down the movement in this superb character study (running an initial six episodes) and lets viewers bathe in what it must be like for a man to experience the shock of lost time and the wonder of a second chance. It’s a brave choice, since Rectify moves slowly and deliberately as both a murder mystery and a legal drama, but it’s a wonderful choice that comes to fruition the moment the camera first gazes at Young’s placid face.
There is so much to love in the originality of Rectify, but Young’s performance is so central to it all that it would be inconceivable if he doesn’t get Emmy recognition for his effort. When we first meet Daniel, he’s leaving prison for the first time, and it’s a concept that is almost too much for him to grasp. He moves so slow and deliberate that the audience is left to wonder if something has happened to him inside, like a head injury. Or maybe the teenager turned into a mentally slow adult, having rotted away waiting to die.
But Rectify soon reveals that Daniel’s laconic nature is far closer to Zen than anything else, and the prison flashback scenes that populate the series reiterate that assumption. To survive, Daniel had to live an introspective, solitary, meditative lifestyle that blocked out hope, that acknowledged nothing of the outside world, that accepted death as impending and freedom as an impossibility better left unimagined.
Only a series that would slowly and with poetic purpose allow that character to experience the unthinkable could actually work and have meaning. If McKinnon wrote Rectify as some kind of rowdy tale of retribution or had Daniel making up for lost time within a day of his release, it would be just another cliche. That he and his fellow writers and producers (and Sundance) have decided to let the audience experience, along with Daniel, what it’s like to see a sunrise, or take your shoes off and walk in the outfield grass of your hometown baseball diamond, is a wise decision. Because everything Daniel does becomes visceral — marveling at technological changes and tactile sensations (Daniel tossing a bean bag chair in the air and letting it land on him repeatedly, or pulling out the feathers of a down pillow and sleeping, naked, upon them).
There is, of course, a lot more going on in the series. His release is controversial and slowly riles up the small town. (The conceit of having Daniel stay is that he’s not capable of leaving – he can’t function normally, barely talks and seems to almost be coming out of a coma at times.) His father died in prison and his mother, Janet (J. Smith-Cameron) has married Ted Talbot Sr. (Bruce McKinnon), a kind and patient man. Together they had a son, Jared (Jake Austin Walker), who hasn’t met half-brother Daniel until the day he’s let out.
An undercurrent to the story is that the family seems to have given up, stopped visiting as much, etc. All except sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer), who has devoted herself to getting him freed and, in the process, fallen for the lawyer, Jon Stern (Luke Kirby) from the nonprofit group Justice Row, which tries to free what it believes are innocent people facing death. Spencer is also magnetic as Amantha, a firebrand sister who hates their hometown but is compassionate and sensitive to Daniel’s reawakening of sorts. Spencer deftly handles the duality of the role.
Also in the mix are Ted Talbot Jr. (Clayne Crawford), a self-centered and shallow man more worried about losing the family business that is rightfully Daniel’s than he is about Daniel. Ted Jr. is married to Tawney (Adelaide Clemens) a young, devout Christian who feels compassion for Daniel.
Oh, all of that and the rumbling of a major cover-up involving the local police, old friends of Daniel and a senator (Michael O’Neill) who used the case to help ride into office. Combined with a small town that doesn’t forget – and the view that Daniel got off on a technicality years after admitting that he did it – brings things to a boil.
But what makes Rectify so rich and compelling are the choices it makes to avoid predictability – not just in its bold choice of immersive pacing, but because it puts characters (and complicated ones) into what feels like a familiar story and makes it seem new. Sundance found a strong storyteller in McKinnon, who finds real depth with Daniel. But Rectify could have easily floundered if it hadn’t found Young, whose face and mannerisms bring Daniel’s life back from the dead.
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