Sundance TV’s Rectify

Sundance TV’s Rectify might be a quiet, modest, unassuming small town drama but in its narrative is contained a cosmos of human experience, pain, suffering, love, joy and sadness in one Georgia county. It’s a show that was conceived by an actor called Ray McKinnon, who is very memorable in everything from Deadwood (the preacher who has seizures) to Sons Of Anarchy (the anachronistic federal agent) to the Coen’s O Brother Where Art Thou (“He’s bona-fide!!”). I had no idea that his mind contained the kind of emotional and empathetic wellspring of creative enterprise to pull off something like this though, because it’s one of the most staggeringly mature, emotionally intelligent and uncommonly compassionate stories I’ve ever experienced onscreen. It tells the story of Daniel Holden (Aden Young) a man who was once convicted of raping and murdering his girlfriend as a teen one hectic night and has been sitting on death row for something like two decades. When new evidence comes to light and he is tentatively exonerated pending a trial on the horizon, he experiences freedom for the first time in a long time, gets reacquainted with his family, faces animosity and controversy from many who are convinced he’s still guilty and must find a way to reintegrate into his community. There is also the matter of who is actually responsible for the girl’s murder so many years before but if you’re thinking this is any kind of thriller well then cool your jets because this is about as slow burn, introspective and deliberately paced as television gets. This isn’t your garden variety murder mystery, it’s a studious anthropological undertaking, a dignified observation of one man in an unthinkable position and the humans who orbit him in a nebulous nexus of relationships fraught with complexity, contradictions and the mysteries of the human soul. He’s faced with retooling relationships with his parents (J. Smith Cameron & Bruce McKinnon), the sister (Abigail Spencer) who never gave up on him, his misunderstood stepbrother (Clayne Crawford) and wife (the angelic and wonderful Adelaide Clemens) who is also something of an old flame to Daniel, a boorish US Senator (Michael O’Neill) determined to see him back behind bars, a former childhood friend (the inherently shady Sean Bridgers) who was there that fateful night and many, many more. His time out in the world is beautifully woven together with painful, illuminating flashbacks to his many years on death row where we see a kinship and brotherhood form between him and and another inmate (Johnny Ray Gill) who will become his best friend. Along with all these tangible, traceable relationships he has there are also several key allegorical figures who appear to him on his journey including a charismatic antiques dealing socialite (Leon Rippy), a compassionate prison chaplain (Matthew Posey), a flirtatious conventioneer (Frances Fisher) and a mysterious booze swilling, livestock thieving wanderer (W. Earl Brown) who imparts to him in a dreamlike journey the haunting wisdom: “It’s the beauty that hurts the most, not the ugly.” It’s quite a journey, and every step of the way the show’s creators make the right decisions for characters they love and care for deeply, even the challenging ones who are tough to relate to. This isn’t a story about whether or not Daniel is guilty or not or who actually committed the crime and if you’re expecting resolution, you’ve come to the wrong place, however if catharsis is what you seek then you’ll be rewarded greatly, just not in the ways you might think. Consider a moment where Daniel experiences a sunrise for the first time in twenty years of being locked in one room, or enjoys a bag of chips and a pop in the afternoon sun on a grass field, or simply shares a deep conversation about the rain with Clemens’s impossibly soulful Tawney. These are moments that to you and I might seem trivial because we take them for granted, but to Daniel who hasn’t been able to do these things in a cruelly prolonged amount of time they mean the world. This story takes its time getting to know its characters, allows for deep moral complexity to unfold, has some of the best writing I’ve ever heard, explores the passage of time in a way I’ve never seen attempted and is just overall legitimately one of the finest pieces of art I’ve ever seen in any medium an at times reaches levels of pure transcendence.

-Nate Hill