The Sundance Channel just finished its 8-episode miniseries run of Jane Campion‘s ponderous, occasionally difficult and sometimes beyond fantastic Top of the Lake (now streaming on Netflix), and is putting its first original series, the equally fascinating Rectify, in the show’s former timeslot. Rectify, created by actor Ray McKinnon (Deadwood) and from the producers of Breaking Bad, is the story of a man released from prison after 19 years on Death Row after new DNA evidence exonerates him for the crime of raping and murdering his teenage girlfriend, which he confessed to at the time. He returns to his Paulie, Georgia, town to reunite with his family, attempting to find a new life for himself in a world he hasn’t seen for 20 years, while facing down small town politics. Hit the jump for more on Rectify, and why you should absolutely tune in.
Like Top of the Lake, Rectify is a meditative work that allows for long silences and far-away stares as part of its storytelling, which means it’s not for everyone. It has elements that feel reminiscent of Cinemax’s Banshee, where a convict has been released and is looking to find his way to serve justice and be absolved of his sins (it even shares a similar title sequence), but whereas Banshee was fast-paced and full of action, Rectify takes the long way round. All of these stories revolve around small towns, where the impact of such an event is acutely felt in all corners, whether it has anything to do with anyone else or not. What stands out about Rectify though is how real and natural everything feels, from the cadence of the Southern accents, dialogue and mindsets (something that, as a Southerner, like McKinnon, I’m always giving a close eye and ear to), to the confusion, anxiety and awkwardness of how to reintegrate with someone coming back into your life after two decades.
Daniel Holden (hauntingly played by Aden Young) was convicted of the heinous rape and murder of his girlfriend all those years ago, an act he confessed to, but Rectify makes it clear that the case is not open and shut, regardless of DNA. Daniel was not a regular boy, and he’s not a normal man, and it’s easy to see why some would think he might have been capable of such an act. But there were other witnesses there that night; could one of them have killed the girl instead? If so, what was Daniel’s part in it, and why did he confess? And can he ever find peace?
Local law enforcement in Paulie (filmed on location in Griffin, Georgia, about an hour south of Atlanta) are hell-bent on putting Daniel back in prison, convinced that he is guilty despite the DNA evidence to the contrary. Like Top of the Lake, the facts of the central mystery are complex and clouded, and the answer isn’t really the point. Daniel’s rehabilitation into the world he left 20 years before is explored from all sides: his own, as well as that of his feisty and fiercely protective sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer, seen most recently on Mad Men), as well as his mother Janet (J. Smith-Cameron), his extremely kind step-father Ted (Bruce McKinnon), his skeptical good-old-boy step-brother Ted, Jr. (Clayne Crawford), Ted Jr.’s sweet and religious wife Tawney (Adelaide Clemens, recently of Parade’s End and finally, his half-brother Jared (Jake Austin Walker) who is uncertain how to bond with the brother he never knew, but is eager to try.
The present day situation in Paulie is juxtaposed with scenes from prison, showing Daniel’s life as an inmate, and his relationships with the murderous men to either side of them. Daniel read voraciously throughout his time in prison, not thinking, he says, about time at all. In a cell without windows, Daniel meditated and read and did anything possible not to think, which makes his return to normal society difficult after two decades of near isolation (as well as being the repeated victim of prison rape). When Tawney expresses her feelings of the injustice of Daniel’s life there, Ted Jr. reminds her that he was on Death Row. It’s not meant to be a holiday. But was Daniel innocent or guilty?
Rectify does an excellent job with exposition and place, making characters stand out easily while explaining things naturally. One thing people find disconcerting about Daniel is his esoteric way of speaking, but Rectify has an esoteric way of storytelling, too. At one point Tawney has a conversation with Daniel about the seasons and how much she loves rain on hot summer days. Daniel asks he what she likes about it, and she explains in the same kind of measured, considered way that he would. This scene, replicated in other ways throughout Rectify, will either bore you or bring you to tears, and at the end of the premiere episodes you should have a good idea which.
There’s a little bit of a sex, a little bit of violence, a dose of mystery and a lot of emotions (Rectify is a heavy work — like Top of the Lake, it means to absorb viewers into its atmosphere), but to give it time to tell its story in a mere 6 episodes seems well worth it, even in this busy TV season.
Rectify premieres Monday, April 21st at 9 p.m. with two episodes back to back on the Sundance Channel.