How does a man, convicted after confessing to the rape and murder of his high school girlfriend, possibly reintegrate back into society? The new drama Rectify, the first scripted full series from Sundance Channel, tackles this daunting question with quiet patience, resolve and profound beauty. How does he — as the title suggests — make things right again?
Mirroring, in some ways, the circumstances surrounding the release of the West Memphis Three (documented terrifically in the Paradise Lost film trilogy as well as the recent West of Memphis) where DNA evidence called their original convictions into question, Rectify stars Australian Aden Young as Daniel Holden, who we first meet staring blankly through a prison cell door awaiting he release. He watches the strip search of a new prisoner with a ghostliness he carries through all his interactions. A guard brings him a suit to change into, but he can’t remember how to tie a tie.
During his incarceration, his mother Janet (J. Smith-Cameron) has re-married Ted Sr. (Bruce McKinnon), bringing Ted Jr. (Clayne Crawford) and his wife (Australian Adelaide Clemens) into the family. His sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer) has always maintained his innocence, but his younger half-brother Jared (Jake Austin Walker) barely knows him. Roland Foulkes (Michael O’Neill), the lawyer who successfully prosecuted Daniel, has ridden that victory to a Senate seat, while his new lawyer Jon (Luke Kirby) has entered some kind of relationship with Amantha.
It’s a complexly-woven tapestry of relationships at play, but creator Ray McKinnon, who won an Oscar for his short film The Accountant in 2001, has written the story with a certain tenor in mind. Produced by the team behind Breaking Bad, Rectify shares that series’ love of deep character moments and contemplative silence. Not only that, but the series is one of the most elegant-photographed currently on TV; where channel-mate Top of the Lake was all muted greys and greens, Rectify is sun-dappled and bathed in colour. The very luminescence of its actors’ eyes speaks volumes.
Young is stellar as Daniel, now an alien in an entirely unfamiliar world. In one scene he enters a gas station and confusedly purchases “Smart Water” and a 48-hour energy shot. Of the former he asks, “Does this work?” How could he know that it doesn’t? He explains that in prison he developed a very specific routine in order to cope with his isolation, and Young brilliantly portrays the simple way in which Daniel can no longer understand the passage of time.
The entire cast is fantastic, with Spencer standing-out as a consistent source of humour, and Clemens’ tender and serene turn as Tawney evoking her doppelganger Michelle Williams in all the best ways. Buoying the show is an inspired soundtrack; the first episode ends with mightily underrated singer-songwriter Sharon van Etten’s stunning ode to anxiety We Are Fine, and the second with The Drones’ Shark Fin Blues, with Bon Iver’s Flume thrown in for good measure.
If there’s one thing that might turn viewers off Rectify, it’s the pacing. This is an unapologetically slow show. There’s very little action per se, although the first episode ends with a moment of genuine shock. There are many forces at work surrounding Daniel’s release, from the suspicion of the town to the machinations of Senator Foulkes and the police force in the small town of Paulie in which he lives. McKinnon is intent on poetic exploration of Daniel’s psyche, as well as the effect his newly regained presence has on those around him.
In many ways, Rectify is a spiritual successor to HBO’s much-mourned Enlightened. Each is a drama with a thick vein of dark humour running through it, and each follows a protagonist in a world which seems intent on rejecting them in measured detail. Mercifully, however, Rectify has been renewed for a ten episode second season following the six episodes of its first, where Enlightened was cancelled after its second.
With no evidence that Rectify will air anywhere in Australia any time soon (it would be a perfect fit for Showcase, however, hint hint Foxtel), Wires & Lights strongly recommends that you seek it out however you can. Having just aired its fourth episode, there’s plenty of time to get caught up before the finale in a couple of weeks. Despite its meditative nature, it’s thrilling television.
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