Watching death-row inmate Daniel Holden (Aden Young) be prepped for release after serving 18 years for raping and murdering a girl is like watching a corpse be readied for a funeral. Pale and devoid of emotion, he’s fancied up in a suit and tie, a freshly-wiped-clean blank slate presented to the public.”I’m not sure what to make of this drastic change of course in my life,” he tells the press assembled outside the prison, with the cadence of someone who suddenly has all the time in the world. “I will seriously need to reconsider my worldview.”
Over the six hours of the uneven miniseries, Daniel — freed but not exonerated due to a DNA mismatch — tentatively focuses on his new worldview, albeit from the teeny Georgia burg where the trouble started. What does it mean to reenter the world of prismatic megastores after spending half his life in a blindingly white cell? How does he reengage with people after two decades of solitary confinement and prison-shower gang rape? Complicating matters, his mother (J. Smith-Cameron) is a nervous wreck, his sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer) tells awkward jokes about the electric chair, and his stepbrother Teddy (Clayne Crawford) thinks porn is an appropriate welcome-home gift.
We’re told that Daniel was a weird kid — and he no doubt emerged a damaged man — but Young plays him like a troubled Forrest Gump, pure of heart (he’s profoundly moved by pillow feathers) but slow of mind (“Does this work?” he asks about a bottle of Smartwater). At the end, Daniel is still a mystery, which makes it difficult to invest in his story. Of course, that may be part of Rectify creator Ray McKinnon’s plan for this resolution-free miniseries. Despite a strong start, there are too many dropped plots and clipped characters — Into the Wild‘s Hal Holbrook is exceptional as the case’s original prosecutor…then he never shows up again — to make Rectify work in its entirety. The scattered parts equal much more than the sum.
Still, there’s no shortage of cinematically shot and finely acted moments, notably Daniel’s baptism and subsequent, rambling testimony to his Christian crush/sister-in-law Tawney (the divine Adelaide Clemens). Rectify‘s many stories are strung together with a wonderful, airy pacing — all hail the slow-TV movement! — that lends a haunting backdrop to the story of a man who may not be able to find a life, even after avoiding death. B
Rectify premieres tonight at 9 p.m. ET on Sundance Channel.