Atlanta Film Festival 2013 Screening Review: RECTIFY

Rectify means to get it right

This review is for the first two episodes of the Sundance Channel original series Rectify, which played back-to-back without commercial interruption at the 2013 Atlanta Film Festival.

Full disclosure: this reviewer admits to not being much of a TV-watcher. The last television series he watched with any regularity is Battlestar Gallactica, which went off the air four years ago. Take that as you will.

The writers at Pixar once created a list of their 22 rules of storytelling. The fourth item on the list is as follows:

“Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.”

The story structure defined here is far-reaching and universal, applying to everything from fairy tales to Star Wars: A New Hope to an episode of How I Met Your Mother. The story first sets up the characters and situations, then something occurs to disrupt that status quo. The remainder of the story deals with the characters attempting to correct that imbalance.

If one were to fill in the blanks of this sentence using the premiere episodes of Rectify, it would sound something like:

“Once upon a time, there was a man (Daniel Holden, played with understated depth by Aden Young) who was released from prison after serving 19 years for a crime he did not commit. Every day, he experienced difficulties in readapting to ordinary life. One day, BLANK.”

This BLANK is the biggest problem with screenwriter (and hometown hero) Ray McKinnon’s script; while it does an excellent job setting up the players and creating a situation rife with the potential for drama, nothing actually happens to disrupt or test that situation. Because of that blank, the characters never particularly need to do anything to resolve a conflict. Because of that blank, the story never has a chance to realize its own potential for compelling conflict. Ultimately, the result amounts to little more than pontificating, repetition, and navel-gazing.

While a decompressed tone is somewhat more forgivable in serialized fiction than in, say, a feature-length movie, it doesn’t hide the fact that the majority of the episodes’ 90 minutes are spent beating the audience over the head with the same information: readapting to daily life is hard for Daniel, some people want to help him cope, and some people want to see him back in prison.

It’s the performances from Rectify’s talented cast that elevates the material, making it at times (but all too infrequently) absorbing. Aden Young’s character is soft-spoken and reserved, yet there’s an intensity in the actor’s eyes that conveys meaning and hurt beyond his lack of words. His sister Amantha (played by Abigail Spencer) is at once loveable, flawed, and believable, doing what she can to assuage her brother’s pain, while she’s obviously out of her depth.

The only unevenness in the cast is Chance Crawford’s Ted Talbot; the actor’s overtly slimeball-ish delivery is at odds with the other actors’ subdued ones, causing him to stand out like a douchey thumb. The character feels like he’d be more at home in a cheesy 80s flick wearing a Members Only jacket and popped collars on his polo, rather than in this probing, Georgia-based study of loss and hope.

The script gives every character a distinct, individual voice, lending honesty to the actor’s performances. The lack of externalized conflict means that some dialogue can feel a bit “on-the-nose”, but beyond these occurrences, characters speak as is appropriate to their personalities. Though the tendency of the characters to refer to each other by name ad nauseum will have you wishing to never hear the name “Amantha” again.

It’s perhaps becoming less and less meaningful praise in this era of easy-access HD video, but the show looks gorgeous. Shots of sunlight spilling through verdant foliage strongly contrast flashbacks to the stark, dank interior of a prison cell. The cinematography achieves that delicate balance of presenting a world that is simultaneously familiar to the viewer, yet alien as seen through the eyes of a man who has spent half his life never expecting to see unfiltered daylight again.

One trusts (and hopes) that as the series progresses, it will delve into the impending conflicts, and bring them to the forefront by allowing the characters to actually, you know, do stuff. Until then, it’s nice enough to look at, and certainly it isn’t bad, but it’s got a way to go before being worth dedicating 60 minutes of time on a weekly basis.

2 out of 5 stars.


Olufemi is a Mechanical Engineer by day, amateur screenwriter by night; hence a critical thinker who stays up way too late thinking about stuff most people don’t. He uses semicolons frequently.



Leave a Reply