Released inmate adjusts to freedom in engrossing Sundance series ‘Rectify’
Imagine spending two decades in isolation on Death Row, only to be set free into a world you no longer understand.
Filmmaker Ray McKinnon imagined it and turned it into “Rectify,” an engrossing exploration of one man’s re-entry into a society that condemned him to death for the rape and murder of his high school girlfriend in the early ’90s.
From the producers of “Breaking Bad,” this beautifully paced, six-part series debuts next week on Sundance Channel. The first two episodes are being screened in advance on Tuesday at Music Box Theatre, followed by a Skype Q&A with cast and producers (visit musicboxtheatre.com for free tickets).
“Rectify” takes place in the fictional small town of Paulie, Ga. But the inspiration for the story comes from real-life events in Illinois, where a succession of death sentences were overturned through the introduction of DNA evidence more than a decade ago.
“As I watched the men being interviewed upon their day of release, I started wondering what that first day would be like, then the second day, and how surreal that must be,” said McKinnon (“Sons of Anarchy,” “Deadwood”), who won an Oscar in 2002 for “The Accountant,” a short film he wrote, directed and starred in.
For “Rectify,” his research included reading about Chicago cases that involved forced confessions.
“Rectify” isn’t your classic whodunit. It’s a story about our individual and collective need for order, or the illusion of order, even at the expense of justice. Above all, it’s a character study about an atypical protagonist, Daniel Holden, as he adjusts to his new reality — and how that reality adjusts to him.
Aden Young (“Killer Elite”) is mesmerizing as Daniel, a taciturn man-child who spent more than half his life on Death Row. He’s a bit like Forrest Gump with a Ph.D in literature. (Upside to prison: Lots of time to read.)
Newly discovered DNA evidence made Daniel a free man — up to a point. He’s not behind bars but he’s still under suspicion, still the target of the overzealous prosecutor (Michael O’Neill, “Vegas”) who rode an ensuing wave of popularity straight into the office of state senator.
“Daniel isn’t a protagonist in the more black-and-white sense,” said McKinnon, a native of Adel, a small town in Georgia. “There will be times in the show where you go, ‘Oh, my, he could have done this.’ Even if he wasn’t a killer before or an amoral person before, his growing up on Death Row obviously changed him. The ongoing tension of the show is, ‘Who is Daniel Holden?’ ”
Abigail Spencer (“Oz the Great and Powerful,” “Cowboys and Aliens”) plays Daniel’s chain-smoking sister who spent her adult life working to clear his name. Her comrade-in-arms is big-city attorney Jon Stern (Luke Kirby, “Take This Waltz”), who works for a group dedicated to exonerating the wrongfully convicted.
J. Smith Cameron (“True Blood”) is superb as Daniel’s quietly suffering mother, who long ago gave up hope of her son’s release. She remarried, had another child and inherited a stepson, Ted Talbot Jr. (Clayne Crawford, “A Walk to Remember”), whose plans to take over the family tire business imploded when the stepbrother he’d never met suddenly returned home. Adelaide Clemens (“The Great Gatsby”) plays Ted’s better half, a devout Christian with a soft spot for Daniel.
The series has a cinematic feel, with plenty of stand-alone, poignant moments punctuating each episode. In one scene, Daniel discovers an old cassette tape and reverts back to his teenage self, jamming alone in the attic to Cracker’s “Low.”
The half-dozen hourlong episodes span the first seven days after Daniel’s release.
“It could go on further,” McKinnon said about the possibility for a second season. “We went into it thinking that if it’s meant to be these six episodes, let’s do it in a way where there’s no regrets.”