“I hate to say it,” Daniel Holden's stepbrother admits, by way of explaining why they've never gotten to know each other, “but we all thought he'd be dead by now, anyway.”
This is the story of Daniel's life, and non-death, as depicted in the beautiful new Sundance Channel series “Rectify” (it debuts tonight at 9 with back-to-back episodes; the first three hours are already available On Demand). Convicted as a teenager for the rape and murder of his high school girlfriend, Daniel (played by Aden Young) has spent the last 19 years on Death Row, retreating further and further inward, preparing for the moment when he departs the earth once and for all.
But fate has more complicated plans for Daniel, who's set free when modern DNA testing blows a gaping hole in the prosecution's case. Suddenly, the boy who went to prison expecting to leave in a pine box is now a man struggling to adjust to a world, and a family, vastly different from the one he knew, all while living in a small Georgia town where everyone still thinks he's a monster.
There are many ways that the series' creator, character actor and sometime-writer/director Ray McKinnon (he won an Oscar for his short film “The Accountant” back in 2002), could have approached this basic set-up. The most commercial angle would probably involve Daniel seeking revenge on the true perpetrators for killing his girl and destroying his life, even as they try to stop him from exposing them.
“Rectify” is not that. There's definite tension from the townspeople who hate Daniel, from the state senator whose political career was built on Daniel's conviction, and from a pair of local men who may have actually committed the crime, but “Rectify” has no interest in being a conventional thriller. It's a quiet, contemplative – or, if you prefer, unapologetically slow – series exploring the mind and soul of a man who feels like a visitor from another planet (or, at least, another time) as he returns to his old life.
McKinnon (whom you might know from “Deadwood,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “The Blind Side” or many other roles) told me recently, “There was nobody to do this show until Sundance decided to start doing shows.” And it feels very much like the kind of quiet, haunting indie film you might see at the Sundance Film Festival, only presented at much greater length. (Between this show and the recent brilliant mini “Top of the Lake,” Sundance Channel is committing to the idea that its original series should fit comfortably next to its movies.)
The first episode was directed by Keith Gordon, and he and McKinnon set up a clear, unwavering template for the series(*) to follow: one focused on small moments and still images rather than heated confrontations or plot movement. There is violence at times, but the series is more interested in something like simply watching Daniel sit in a grassy field and get used to the idea that he can enjoy nature whenever he wants. The key relationships in the series involve Daniel with his fierce watchdog of sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer, who was Don's teacher girlfriend in “Mad Men” season 3), and the unexpectedly tender friendship he develops with his born-again sister-in-law Tawney (Adelaide Clemens).
(*) “Rectify” was designed as an ongoing series; the finale leaves a lot of plot points hanging for a potential second season, but also concludes in a way that feels emotionally true to Daniel's story. (Put another way, it's exactly how I'd expect a film-length version of it to end.)
Because of the measured pace and mournful tone, “Rectify” will be an acquired taste. One TV critic, even as she admired parts of the series, complained to me, “I want to say to the director/editor – pick your moments to have the guy stare at things! Maybe not every 10 seconds!” There are times when the series veers perilously close to self-parody, though it's almost always clever enough to pull itself out of that. (A visit to Walmart involves a lot of staring, but then turns into a bonding moment between Daniel and his nervous mother.)
The whole thing would fall apart without a strong performance at the center of it. McKinnon originally wanted to cast his friend and frequent collaborator Walton Goggins in the role, when the series was in development at AMC (right after “The Shield” ended), and it's easy to picture Goggins nailing the eerie remoteness of Daniel. (Just think of that period early in “Justified” season 2 when Boyd was trying to shut himself off from the world.) But Aden Young is exceptional in his own right, holding the frame even when doing little, and evincing sympathy even as Daniel reveals so little of himself to those around him. And the supporting performances by Spencer, Clemens and others (McKinnon uses “Deadwood” alums Sean Bridgers and W. Earl Brown in small but memorable roles) are terrific as well.
To help us better understand the Bowie-esque man who fell to earth that Daniel has become, the series occasionally flashes back to his time on Death Row, where he and a neighboring convict tried to keep each other sane despite the lack of human connection and stimulation. The other convict admires Daniel's ability to be so at peace with doing time, to which Daniel replies, “I don't do time.”
For some, the six hours of “Rectify” will feel like a very slow sentence indeed. For others, the performances, the very clear sense of time and place, the beautiful images and the thoughtful things the series has to say about life, death and spirituality will feel like no time at all.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org