Review: Rectify 1×1-1×2 (Sundance)

An independent movie in eight parts

In the US: Mondays, 10pm, Sundance Channel

An often-asked question these days is “Why is there so much good American TV on at the moment?” Look at Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Boss, et al. Why are these shows all getting made now?

Scratch below the surface of the broadcasting schedules and you’ll soon find two of the main answers:

  1. Cable TV, which caters to smaller audiences and looks to differentiate itself from the mass market through quality by giving writers creative freedom, largely unfettered by the FCC rules that stifle ideas on network TV.
  2. The large-scale demise of the independent American movie scene – all the writers who would normally have written intelligent, thoughtful dramatic movies have instead gone over to cable TV, where that creative freedom and the ability to study characters in long-form drama are a constant intoxicating appeal.

One of the biggest names in the independent movie scene is, course, Robert Redford’s Sundance Festival, which has its own US TV channel as well. Up to now, that channel’s task has been to promote and air independent movies, but it’s now looking to branch out into original dramas. It’s no surprise, therefore, that for its first ever drama, not only has the channel gone to the producers of Breaking Bad for a quality product, it’s commissioned possibly the most indie-est of all indie movies masquerading as a TV show.

Daniel Holden (Aden Young) is released from death row after new DNA evidence shows that he might not have been the man who raped and murdered his 16-year-old girlfriend. After 19 years in jail, Daniel has to learn how to live again, his life having been on hold for so long. But having originally confessed to the crime, he also has to deal with the people in town who still believe he killed his girlfriend. Meanwhile, his family has to deal with the completely different Daniel who’s returned to them.

Sound like fun? No, of course not, and despite becoming quite an incredible bit of drama, it suffers from the biggest flaw of a lot of indie movies, now stretched out and writ large over an entire season of episodes: nothing happens.

Here’s a trailer.

After spending 19 years on Death Row for the rape and murder of his teenage girlfriend, Daniel Holden is going home. His conviction has been vacated due to new DNA evidence, thrusting him back into a world he no longer knows. Having spent his adult life waiting to die, Daniel must now learn how to live again. But, his reentry into the outside world may be as unforgiving as prison. He is haunted by the past, dogged by the present, and uncertain of the future. As he struggles to adapt to his new life, his return will reignite the fears of a small town and threaten to shatter his family’s fragile peace. Daniel’s alleged crime divided a community. His freedom could tear it in half.

Is it any good?
On the one hand, it’s absolutely phenomenal. On the other, you have to have an inordinate amount of patience to watch it.

Essentially, the show plays out as if Forrest Gump had been convicted of a sex crime and then had to come home to face the music. There are elements of Life in there, with pseudo-Gump having achieved an almost Zen-like state of existence while inside, and a lot of the first two episodes involve watching Gump enjoying simple pleasures: the sun on his face, the grass beneath his feet, having a ‘jazz’ mag to masturbate to.

The rest of the drama involves his family and the townsfolk and their reactions to his release. His family, which includes his sister (Abigail Spencer from Suits, Mad Men, Hawthorne and – dear God – Angela’s Eyes), mother, step-father and step-brother, are slowly waiting for the Daniel they remember to emerge from the near catatonic man they now have. The townsfolk are just angry that he’s been released.

And that’s more or less all that happens. The question of whether or not Daniel did the crime he confessed to lingers in the background and is touched upon, not least by a singular event at the end of the first episode that suggests he might be innocent, although the show goes to some lengths to leave his guilt a possibility. There are flashbacks to his life in prison, largely involving his book-reading, meditation and friendship with another death row inmate. There are also revelations in-dialogue about the brutality of prison that will surprise no one but are left to the imagination.

But this is largely a show about a man learning to live again after putting his life on hold. As such, paradoxically, it’s a necessity that nothing much happen. There are huge long stretches of nothing happening that might take a mere 40 minutes of an indie movie, 5-10 in a conventional movie or TV drama, but here make up just the first two episodes and much of the plot of the show’s six episodes could easily have been squished down into these first two. Yet, for the show to have its impact, that breathing time is needed.

So, as I say, we have a paradox. The show takes probably as much time as it needs to allow Daniel to slowly blossom back into life. Yet at the same time, Rectify needs the viewer to have extraordinary patience in order to bear with it. You need to watch this at the rate of one episode a week. Don’t save them all up on a PVR; don’t wait for the box set to come out. Watch them as they air, if you’re even to stand a chance with this.

Even so, despite the great cast, the intelligence of the story and the beauty of the cinematography, I can’t exactly recommend this as a show. If you like indie movies, this might be your cup of tea and it’ll probably be very rewarding for you; but if you’re a bit more mainstream, you’ll probably find paint drying more enjoyable.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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