The Odd Grace of 'Rectify'

More important than the whodunit are deeper and more thoughtful matters. It's an undeniably strange series, but between this and Top of the Lake, Sundance is having a knockout spring, giving us murder mysteries that say way more about life than they do about death.

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Last night Sundance premiered a new series called Rectify, which looked in the ads to be some kind of Southern small-town crime series, a ghoul-less True Blood maybe. But while the show does trade in themes of crime and punishment, Rectify is actually something else entirely, a lyrical and mysterious story about a man rebirthed into the world after nearly twenty years of solitude. There is a whodunit lurking around the show's edges, but what are front and center are deeper and more thoughtful matters. It's an undeniably strange series, but I'm awfully glad it's shown up out of the blue to whisper odd things at us.

Aden Young plays Daniel Holden, a man just released from death row after serving nineteen years for a rape and murder conviction that's just been tossed out in light of new DNA testing. Daniel was 18 years old when he went in, his entire adulthood spent alone in a windowless room. He's understandably addled by the experience, and the first couple hours of Rectify deal with his slow, confused exploration of a world he thought, and was repeatedly told, he would never see again. His loving family hovers nearby, chiefly his mother Janet (J. Smith-Cameron) and sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer), but no one is quite sure what to do for Daniel, how to help him reacclimate with as little damage as possible. In one sad, lovely scene, Daniel tells his mother that in some ways it feels like he's only been gone a few weeks, that he's still in high school. But another part of him believes that he was only ever in that cell, his experience there so thorough and consuming that he's not sure that the outside world is even real. Daniel is caught between two worlds, one a horror of isolation and futility, the other imperfect and cluttered and suspicious. He may be out of prison, but his guilt is still a certainty for many residents of his small Georgia town. Can Daniel free himself in all possible ways and reclaim a life? I suppose that's the series' biggest question.

Rectify, which was created by the actor Ray McKinnon, does a wonderful job of fleshing out its world, giving even small characters the spark of true life. The actors are all doing fine work, particular standouts being Smith-Cameron as a doting mother who is terrified to admit that she doesn't know her son anymore, and Clayne Crawford as Ted Jr., Daniel's step-brother, who took over the family business in his absence and feels threatened by Daniel's reentry. Crawford's performance is startlingly well-realized, a complex mix of kindness and menace that makes him the "bad guy" of the story but not an actual bad guy. Ted's wife Tawney (the gentle, soulful Adelaide Clemens) seems scared of her husband and oddly drawn to Daniel, a dynamic that might feel forced were it not handled so delicately. Much of the show feels like that, all the potential for turgid melodrama wiped away by the curiousness of the writing — Daniel speaks in a kind of old-fashioned prose, likely the product of being locked up with a bunch of books for 20 years — and the carefully calibrated performances. There's also a dreaminess to the series' aesthetic that feels refreshingly artsy; flourishes of light and the keening of Gabriel Mann's score inviting us to sit and be mesmerized, to dive deep into this mysterious story about a man returning from another dimension.

I'm also intrigued by the physical mystery, the who-killed-the-girl part, which we're given one significant tease about in the first two hours. Hopefully there won't be too much tromping around chasing down leads, whatever answers McKinnon wants to give us unfolding organically and without artificially raised stakes. This first season is only six episodes, so I'd imagine we won't get anything concretely explained this year, but that's fine. This isn't a show about solving a murder, it's a show about reviving a life. Many lives, really. Everyone in Daniel's family has been deeply affected in one way or another by the whole ordeal. Amantha seems to have put her life on hold save for an ill-fated fling with Daniel's lawyer (Luke Kirby, from Slings & Arrows). Janet is dealing with the stress of blending a family, twenty years after she remarried. Ted Jr. worries what Daniel's return might mean for the family business. Daniel's half-brother Jared (the impressive Jake Austin Walker) is saddled with his own adolescence while all this tumult engulfs his family. Shedding light on that ripple effect, Rectify is a deeply humane, searching show, one that regularly surprised me with its intricately crafted nuances and idiosyncrasies. Much like Daniel, I've no idea where he and the rest are headed, but the show has caught my eye and I'd like to follow it out of — or into? — the woods. Between this and Top of the Lake, Sundance is having a knockout spring, giving us murder mysteries that say way more about life than they do about death.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.