Once again demonstrating that compelling drama can come from unlikely sources, Sundance Channel expands on the inroads it’s made with miniseries in “Rectify,” a series with a strong indie-film sensibility and slow-as-molasses, hypnotic pace. If that doesn’t exactly scream boffo box office, it does represent the sort of quality that can put a network on the media’s radar, buoyed as it is by Aden Young’s wonderfully stoic performance as a man who spent 19 years on death row before being freed by DNA evidence. Someone understandably refers to the protagonist as “Starman,” but his distant stare and alienation better approximate the vibe in “Sling Blade.”
Young’s Daniel Holden isn’t completely out of the woods when he’s released, since the former prosecutor — now a state senator (Michael O’Neill) — is convinced he got the right man, and the evidence doesn’t completely exonerate him. Whether he’ll be retried — and if he is indeed innocent, who really murdered that teenage girl? — add an element of more traditional mystery to the ongoing storyline.
For the most part, though, “Rectify” derives its strength from Daniel’s lurching efforts to re-integrate himself into society, and the effects that having him on the outside create among his extended family, from his sister (Abigail Spencer) to his remarried mom (J. Smith Cameron) to his step-brother Ted (Clayne Crawford), who frets about the negative impact if Daniel opts to return to the family business.
Then there’s Ted’s wife (Adelaide Clemens of the recent HBO mini “Parade’s End” and upcoming “The Great Gatsby”), a devout Christian who takes an almost inexplicable interest in Daniel, and whose goodness seems to be the one light with a chance of penetrating his deadened eyes.
Series creator Ray McKinnon turns Daniel’s situation into a means of ruminating about the impact of isolation — his prison existence is illustrated through judicious flashbacks — and the consequences of living under a death sentence.
Yet “Rectify” is full of unexpected little qualities, including moments of surprising tenderness, humor (someone tries to catch Daniel up on what he’s missed by showing him, appropriately, “Dazed and Confused”), discussions of faith, the media and the wider community’s prying eyes. Moreover, the show possesses a nagging uncertainty that keeps viewers off balance, even if the hours contain lengthy stretches where in hindsight nothing much happens.
Admittedly, such descriptions as “slow” and “unorthodox” are more likely to yield critical plaudits than commercial success; still, programs that attract such raves also tend to work for a small but discerning audience, including a few who would doubtless be hard-pressed currently to identify Sundance’s dial position.
By that measure, “Rectify” is a more-than-credible addition to the DVR menu — one more worthy option as we escape into our own little electronic cells of solitary amusement.
(Series; Sundance Channel, Mon. April 22, 9 p.m.)
Cast: Aden Young, Abigail Spencer, J. Smith Cameron, Luke Kirby, Clayne Crawford, Adelaide Clemens, Bruce McKinnon, Jake Austin Walker, Michael O’Neill.
Filmed in Georgia by Zip Works and Gran Via Prods. Executive producers, Ray McKinnon, Mark Johnson, Melissa Bernstein; co-executive producers, Evan Dunsky, Keith Gordon; producer, Don Kurt; director, Gordon; writer, McKinnon; camera, Paul Sommers; production designer, David Blass; editor, Henk Van Eeghen; music, Gabriel Mann; casting, Junie Lowry Johnson, Libby Goldstein. 120 MIN.