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The Subtle Suspense of the Sundance Channel's 'Rectify'

Courtesy of Sundance Channel

In the Sundance Channel’s new drama “Rectify,” which premiered last night, a man is released from prison after spending nearly two decades on death row for rape and murder. “Rectify” is the network’s first original scripted series, produced by Melissa Bernstein and Mark Johnson from “Breaking Bad,” and it shares that show’s commitment to the slow burn of character development and plot. But as a drama about an accused killer, “Rectify” occupies a category all its own. In the languidness of its imagery and the leisureliness of its action, it feels like a narrative alternative to the panoramic gore on so many other TV dramas.

When Daniel Holden (Aden Young) has his death sentence overturned due to new DNA evidence, he moves back to his hometown to live with his mother and sister. The show’s early episodes feature Daniel’s tentative forays into a new life as his family anxiously orbits him. In one scene, he lies barefoot in a field, feeling the grass beneath him. In another he sits in the bath and runs his fingers over his face as if testing his own solidity. The drama at first feels pleasantly slack; the camera lingers on trees and grass and sky. Sex and violence are dealt with in only the most partial, suggestive ways: a silk robe slipped to the floor, a bright flash of blood, a corpse placidly floating down a creek.

“Rectify” is like a photographic negative of brutal dramas like Fox's “The Following,” about a murderous cult leader who inspires legions of followers, Showtime's “Dexter,” and NBC’s new drama “Hannibal.” “The Following,” in particular, is unflinching in its bloodshed. Every episode finds more fantastic ways to slaughter—jugulars are sliced, eyes are gouged out, until it all seems more like a game of inventing elaborate ends than a string of actual deaths. On “Hannibal,” the violence has a macabre elegance, the scenes of butchery choreographed with eerie grace. Dr. Lecter slices human livers at his dining room table as classical music fills the room. But the graphicness is astonishing, the mutilations a visual assault. The show’s quiet moments are portents; in every lull we are waiting for the next kill. 

The total slowness of “Rectify” is its own aesthetic statement. The premiere is stunning in its attention to human detail: Daniel’s awestruck face as his car drives through green, open landscapes, his mute pleasure at consuming his first cold beer. And so it is a disappointment that, by the third episode, the coyness of the drama has begun to seem like a kind of indulgence. In the rare moments when the sleepy domestic scenes are punctuated with violence, “Rectify” jolts to life; the contrast makes the action luridly pop.

In a flashback Daniel recalls seeing a fellow inmate bash his head against a door until he is toothless and bloodied, grinning madly through the red-streaked glass. A man shoots himself in the head, but we see only the lurch of his body as the gun goes off, and the bloodlessness of the death makes it somehow starker. The sixth and final episode features a charged and tragic scene that is the most graphic in the series. But overall “Rectify” actually has too little violence, too few intrusions into the general atmosphere of calm. For the most part, the prison scenes are just as clean and quiet and bright as the scenes from Daniel’s life on the outside.

John Landgraf, president of the network FX—which airs the bluntly violent “Sons of Anarchy” and “American Horror Story”—said in a recent interview that network TV tends to make its violence pornographic because “death is what rivets people.” But “Rectify,” in its early moments, seems so promising because it gestures toward a way of dramatic storytelling that emphasizes the effects of violence instead of the violence itself; it dispenses its carnage with judicious restraint. In the end, though, it is numbing in the opposite way of a show like “The Following”: In its painterly human drama it forgets that subtlety is not the same thing as suspense.