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

HBO’s True Detective: Season 2

So just what was it about season two of HBO’s True Detective that caused such a monumental ruckus of ruthless criticism? Well, who can say. I imagine it had something to do with the dark, difficult and byzantine way that creator Nic Pizzolatto presents the material. Maybe it’s the fact that it had to follow the lightning in a bottle, southern gothic, out of left field mastery of season one. Simply just the shift in tone and setting? I’m reaching for straws here because the hate and rejection that this brilliant piece of television has amassed always flew over my head. This is deep, dark LA noir at its finest, most gorgeously dangerous and I love every challenging, impenetrable episode to bits.

The setting shifts from bayous of Louisiana, the amount of lead characters multiplies significantly and where there was once eerie folk horror and occult conspiracy we now find decadence, corruption most high and a focused, implosive inwardness in exploring each individual the narrative focuses on. Colin Farrell is unbearably intense as LA cop Ray Velcoro, a haunted addict who has fallen from the grace of both the department and his family, but isn’t down for the count quite yet. Vince Vaughn is emblematic of every career criminal trying to go straight as Frank Semyon, a stubborn small time kingpin with dreams of scoring big in California real estate. Rachel McAdams is haunted as Ani Bezzerides, a cop with a tragic past and the deep set trauma to prove it. Taylor Kitsch is Paul Woodrough, a pent up special ops veteran turned state trooper who rounds out this quartet as they’re faced with the kind of miserable, insurmountable odds one always finds in the best kind of film noirs. There’s an unsettling, decades old conspiracy afoot in the fictional yet uneasily realistic county of Vinci, CA, a brooding, festering menace that seems rooted in the now booming transportation system that has taken the economy by storm. Our heroes struggle to fight treachery, debauchery and excess run mad everywhere they turn, for their souls and California’s itself alike as the slogan for promotional material “We get the world we deserve” seems stingingly apparent throughout.

Farrell is my favourite as Velcoro, the anxiety ridden badass who displays the horrors of his past in the manic whites of his eyes and drowns them out with enough booze and blow to feed a city’s collective habit. He’s an antihero type, moonlighting as an enforcer for Vaughn but maintaining a fierce moral compass when all else is naught. Vaughn feasts on the stylized dialogue here and produces verbal poetry so good it hurts and you hit the rewind button just to hear his delivery again. His Frank is a hard, jaded piece of work with a soul hiding beneath the layers of anger and distrust for the world around him. McAdams’s Ani comes from a place of childhood trauma so unthinkable that they barely show it in hushed flashback, and it’s apparent in her caged animal body language, by far the actress’s most affecting work. Kitsch makes the slightest impression of the four and his arc didn’t seem as immediate as the others but he still did a bang up job in intense physicality. After the success of season one a host of excellent actors were drawn to this project, standouts here include David Morse as Ani’s commune leader dad, Kelly Reilly as Frank’s intuitive wife and second in command, Rick Springfield (!) as a shady plastic surgeon, Ritchie Coster as Vinci’s terminally alcoholic mayor, W. Earl Brown, James Frain, Ronny Cox, C.S. Lee, Lolita Davidovitch and the legendary Fred Ward as Ray’s bitterly prophetic ex-cop father.

Pizzolatto spins a very different kind of story here, one composed of long glances, deep shadows, arresting establishing shots of Vinci’s sprawling highway system, as dense and tough to navigate as the season’s central mystery, which isn’t one you get a sense of in just one, two or even three viewings. Impatience and frustration are easy to understand with this narrative, but one shouldn’t write off this piece so easily and I’m sure that’s what happened. A few people don’t have the time to invest in it, get hostile and throw some negative reviews out there and before you know it it becomes cool to hate and there’s folks throwing around words like ‘flawed’ before they’ve attempted a single episode, but that’s the way the internet works I suppose. Balls to them though, this is a deliciously dark, highly stylized, very emotional ride through a world whose themes, intentions and true colours aren’t readily visible until you descend several layers deep alongside these compelling characters. It’s thoughtful, pessimistic yet just hopeful enough to keep a candle lit in all that darkness and has some of the most beautiful acting, camera, dialogue and music work I’ve seen from anything. Masterpiece.

-Nate Hill

The Big White: A Review by Nate Hill 

Snowbound location. Pitch black comedy. A corpse that’s central to the plot. The Big White was obviously influenced by Fargo, the Pulp Fiction of wintry crime comedies, but holds its own fairly well thanks to solid acting and writing. It’s nothing new or incredible, but it’ll get you your perversely humerous noir fix, and who can say no to Robin Williams, playing a pitiable travel agent who spies a risky way to end his financial problems. Discovering a frozen corpse, he has the brilliant idea to pass it off as his deceased brother and collect the insurance money. A few problems lie ahead: a dogged insurance investigator (Giovanni Ribisi), two moronic hitmen (Tim Blake Nelson & W. Earl Brown) and the small detail that his brother isn’t actually dead, and comes waltzing back into his life in the form of a rampaging, unstable Woody Harrelson. William’s spitfire wife (Holly Hunter) looks on in exasperation as her husband turns their lives into disaster, while everyone is somewhat clueless and misinformed, leading to great amounts of hilarity. Sound chaotic? It is, sort of. It’s also kinda laid back and deadpan enough to make the Coen brothers proud. Harrelson and Williams both bring their very different brands of manic, Williams I’m a forlorn desperate sense, and Harrelson  just the unhinged wildcard. Alison Lohman is also running about, but it’s been so long since I saw it I can’t remember exactly who she plays. Fans of Fargo will be tickled, those with a weird sense of humour as well. Fun stuff.