“He’s getting out, but this thing is far from over.” The foreboding words of soon-to-be-released murderer/rapist Daniel Holden’s (Aden Young) attorney, Jon Stern (Luke Kirby), remain implanted in the viewer’s mind throughout each and every hour of Rectify, a languid yet no less compelling exploration of life after liberty is regained. Sundance Channel’s first original series opens with a chilling shot of Daniel moments before he’s to be set free from a Georgia state penitentiary, his face set far back in the frame behind a formation of heavy steel doors and reinforced glass windows, staring blankly into space. This cogent image, of a man still clearly imprisoned both physically and mentally, is Rectify’s dominant theme. Fortunately, what could have been an oppressively melancholic, glacially paced narrative is propelled to a level of unanticipated potency on the strength of its writing, acting, and cinematography. The scenario of an exonerated individual attempting to adjust to a changed world has been done ad nauseam, but Rectify repeatedly sidesteps genre conventions with its authentic portrait of a broken man, a disconnected family, and a fractured small town striving to put itself back together again.
The story begins nearly two decades after Daniel’s initial confinement on death row, his conviction overturned on a technicality. The semen found at the crime scene, which was used as the primary piece of evidence in the trial turns out not to be Daniel’s, but that of an unknown party. This brings about scores of eyebrow-raising, conspiracy theory-like questions for both the characters and the audience, but Rectify doesn’t turn into a drawn-out police procedural by spending precious time languishing over the minute details of Daniel’s criminal case. Sure, it often breaks up the familial dramatics with petty, bitterly toned law-enforcement powwows between shady former prosecutor turned senator Roland Faulks (Michael O’Neill) and sour Sheriff Carl Daggett (J.D. Evermore), both of whom still believe Daniel is guilty, but its cardinal focus is the reformation of Daniel’s spiritual state and the painful adjustments his relatives must make in the wake of his release.
Young’s muted portrayal of Daniel is key to Rectify’s success; his withdrawn, constantly searching facial expressions and soft-spoken, half-mumbling tone convey a flurry of emotions beneath the unassuming surface. It’s a performance that recalls that of Michael Shannon in the earlier portions of Bug and Take Shelter. There’s a few too many extended sequences of Daniel zoning out, gazing at a pretty sunset or the curious, eternally rotating hot dog machine in a convenience store, yet the character’s innermost turmoil is nonetheless conveyed through Young’s wordless depictions of confusion and grief. When Daniel finally does break his silence in a powerful monologue delivered to his ever-insensitive step brother, Ted Jr. (Clayne Crawford), which describes a gang-rape incident early in his lockup stint, the speech doesn’t equate to a hackneyed plot device dropped out of nowhere for pure shock value, but a convincing representation of a damaged man spilling his guts.
Rectify surrounds Young with an equally laudable supporting cast. As Daniel’s tentative mother, J. Smith-Cameron hits many of the same penetrating notes that made her work in Margaret so memorable. Like Daniel, she occasionally slips into disoriented trances sparked by the tense situation. Daniel’s sister, Amantha (Abigail Spencer), quickly affirms herself as the show’s secondary protagonist, caught in the middle of a pressing choice: flee the fragmented home that’s caused her so much anguish over the years or stay and fight for and protect her despondent brother. Crawford has a poor man’s Ray Liotta air about him that suits his shamelessly dickish character well. In spite of the numerous vexatious lawmen aiming to land Daniel back in the slammer, Ted Jr. reveals himself as Rectify’s most appealing villain, a snake-like, self-centered townie who cares more about saving his business (which he inherited in Daniel’s absence) than getting to know his troubled step-brother.
While Rectify’s slow-burn progression may lessen the impact of its sparse anecdotal twists, the series is nevertheless peppered with an array of beautiful wide shots of rural Georgia, the best of which just might be a bird’s eye view of Daniel drowsily walking onto a vacant baseball diamond, then sprawling out on his back in the outfield. There’s also stretches of slyly effective character development, as when Daniel’s understanding half-brother, Jared (Jake Austin Walker), eager to help his new sibling catch up on pop culture, brings him a modest flatscreen TV with an embedded DVD player, and the two watch Dazed and Confused together. It’s the tender, realistic moments like these where Rectify thrives, distinguishing itself from the bulk of other series with similar subject matter.