Sundance drama 'Rectify' is beautiful, disturbing

In "Rectify," Sundance's first wholly owned TV series, convict Daniel Holden (center) faces life as a free man after 20 years in prison.
In "Rectify," Sundance's first wholly owned TV series, convict Daniel Holden (center) faces life as a free man after 20 years in prison.
Posted: April 23, 2013

* RECTIFY. 9 p.m. Monday, Sundance Channel. Moves to 10 p.m. April 29.

THERE'S A WONDERFUL moment early in the premiere Monday of the Sundance Channel's new drama, "Rectify," in which Daniel Holden (Aden Young) is being driven away from the prison in which he'd spent 19 years on death row.

His sister, Amantha (Abigail Spencer), is behind the wheel. His window is rolled down, and it appears he's drinking in fresh air and scenery, the way anyone might after staring at concrete walls for nearly two decades, waiting to die.

And then he falls asleep.

It won't be the last time it happens, and while I can't offhand think of another drama whose main character does that, I also can't think of a better way "Rectify" could have conveyed the effect of the overwhelming change in Daniel's circumstance than to show him reacting as a newborn might to overstimulation.

It's choices like this that make "Rectify," a beautiful and disturbing new drama about a man returning to his community after being convicted of a crime he might not have committed, the best new show of the season. If not necessarily the easiest to embrace.

Because, like so many things in "Rectify," which over six hours covers the first week in Holden's post-release life, the answer to the question of his guilt or innocence is never completely spelled out.

Freed on the basis of DNA evidence, he still faces the possibility of a new trial in the rape and murder of his high school girlfriend, as well as the judgment of people who prefer to put their faith in his possibly coerced confession rather than in anything science might reveal.

Sundance's first wholly owned scripted series, "Rectify" was created by Ray McKinnon, an actor whose credits include lengthy stints on "Deadwood" and "Sons of Anarchy," and a writer who seems just fine with ambiguity.

"I think a lot of times, we want order over justice or the illusion of order, and that was one of the things that intrigued me about this story," he told reporters in January. "But we also want things framed. We want to . . . have closure as human beings, and in our storytelling, we want to have closure. I'm not so sure I want to abide by those conventions."

Though he said he researched "a number of cases" in which people who'd been in jail for many years were freed - "they're all extraordinary in their own way" - this one is fictional.

"I'm always interested when I see a person who's been in jail for decades who's suddenly released, and you always see those press conferences, and they're, like, 'Oh, I'm going to have a steak and a beer, you know, and be with my mother,' or whatever. But what interested me was, 'Yeah, but what are you going do after that? What are you going to do that whole day and the next day and the next day?' " McKinnon said.

Daniel's world now includes his mother (J. Smith Cameron), a younger half-brother, Jared (Jake Austin Walker), a stepfather, Ted (Bruce McKinnon) as well as a stepbrother, Ted Jr. (Clayne Crawford), whom he's never met.

Ted Jr.'s not rolling out any welcome mats, but his more spiritual wife, Tawney (Adelaide Clemens, "Parade's End," "The Great Gatsby") is, if anything, too eager to make a friend of Daniel.

What does happen to a man when he's removed from the world while still an adolescent, treated like an animal for more than half his life, then returned to a world he's taught himself not to even think about?

There's not a bad performance to be had in "Rectify," which even features Hal Holbrook as Holden's former lawyer. But it's Young, whose character veers from a deceptive lethargy to moments of dry humor, who carries every scene he's in as he finds ways to allow us glimpses of the man still imprisoned behind the mask.


On Twitter: @elgray

Blog: ph.ly/EllenGray

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