February 15, 2017

Looking for Truth and Finding It in Ray McKinnon’s “Rectify”

“Gimme Some Truth” was never one of my favorite John Lennon songs, certainly not compared to “Strawberry Fields Forever,” which the Beatles released on a single with “Penny Lane” 50 years ago this month. But in February 2017 when truth is being blitzed by the unhinged president and his toxic handlers while the Republican Congress looks the other way, it’s time to listen to a song from the Nixon era that nails “neurotic psychotic pigheaded politicians” and “uptight short-sighted narrow-minded hypocrites.”

Without knowing the numbers, my guess is that the same people who are making a surprise bestseller of George Orwell’s 1984 may soon be searching out this song, with its searing George Harrison guitar break and the passionate singing of a man who might have become a world-class rapper had he lived through the 1980s.

If you want truth with the dimensions of Keats’s “Truth is beauty beauty truth,” however, it can be found in Rectify, the Sundance show that helped my wife and me survive the post-election blues. Having seen all four seasons of Ray McKinnon’s courageous series in the span of a week, as if it were a single work of cinematic art, I’d nominate it for Best Picture and Best Actor of 2016 and throw in a Golden Globe and an Emmy. Given the crowded field, the best Rectify has done so far is a 2015 Peabody Award recognizing it as “a powerful, subtle dramatic series.” Besides some Critics Choice nominations and appearances on numerous Top Ten lists, Rectify is the only television drama to score a rating of 100 percent on Metacritic.

Who Is Ray McKinnon?

The profane, sin-drenched mining town in David Milch’s HBO western Deadwood might seem an unlikely place to find the creator of a drama as deeply thoughtful, morally centered and immersively emotional as Rectify, but there he is, Ray McKinnon giving truth and life to the gentle, mellifluous, terminally damaged Rev. H.B. Smith. When the preacher’s brain begins to betray him with satanic hallucinations, he seeks out two men who had befriended him to ask if they remain who he thinks they are and not the demons his mind is telling him they have become. The brilliantly shot night scene where this lost soul goes looking for some saving semblance of humanity in the darkness can be seen online by keyboarding “Ray McKinnon in Deadwood.” Less than three minutes long, it’s a subtle, scarily true piece of acting, one of the shining lights of serial television in a classic of the genre.

The Heart of “Rectify”

The way McKinnon the actor delivers that scene of a man of faith struggling to sustain his hold on reality suggests the depth of understanding guiding him as the creative force behind Rectify and Aden Young’s remarkable performance as Daniel Holden.

An ex-death row inmate convicted of rape and murder, Holden has significant features in common with the Deadwood character played by his author/director. While Rev. Smith has lost his way in the realm of the damned, Daniel is returning to the complexities and challenges of the real world after 19 years in solitary confinement, having been cleared of the rape charge by DNA evidence. The adjustments he has to make are daunting; he seems a stranger even to his own family and worse than that to the people in Paulie, Georgia, some of whom still believe he’s guilty of the murder of his high school girlfriend. That the investigation has been reopened is mainly due to the faith and fury of his lovely, chain-smoking, in-your-face-liberal younger sister (“She persists!”) Amantha (Abigail Spencer). The town is still in the shadow of the incident, which involved drugs and several other boys who were implicated and testified against Daniel, who was then coerced into confessing.

The Level of Truth

In the New Yorker review that first alerted me to “the unhurried pleasures of Rectify,” Emily Nussbaum describes Daniel as “a distinctly odd figure, a socially awkward autodidact who meditated and read obsessively in his cell” and “speaks in an off-kilter, whispery style.” The word “whispery” is misleading because what makes Daniel so compelling is the nuanced, deliberative intensity Aden Young brings to every scene, his way of musing aloud, putting the weight of thought on every word, his laconic sense of humor, his uneasy, new-to-the-world balancing of clear-eyed guilelessness with raw experience, a human being somehow at once cluelessly wise and transparently naive. The scene where he describes being gang-raped in the prison shower resembles some of McKinnon’s most powerful moments in Deadwood. In the mundane setting of a golf course, Daniel opens up to exactly the wrong person (his paranoid, righteously jealous stepbrother Teddy, an award-worthy performance by Clayne Crawford), discussing what he endured as if it were a hard moral lesson that he’s imposing on a wary antagonist; he delivers the graphic last words (“they literally consume you, eat your heart”) with such force it’s as if he’s already imagining the moment in which he will submit his hostile stepbrother to a version of the same humiliation. The soundness of the show’s handling of the subject is discussed in a November 2016 article in The Atlantic that calls Rectify “a crucial step forward” and “the best drama to explore the trauma of sexual assault.”

In an On Demand interview, Aden Young says that what sets Rectify apart is its “level of truth.” Once again, that’s the word of the moment, and if I’m preoccupied with “truth” right now (and I know I’m not alone), it’s because I’m looking back on McKinnon’s series at a time when Trump and his staff are turning lies into “alternative facts.”

Beautifully Rendered

Rectify’s strongest scenes tend to center on Daniel, no doubt because when Young is present the other actors rise to his level; the silences seem more profound, the pauses between words and sentences more felt, more memorable. It helps of course that McKinnon gives Young striking lines, the most to say without ever saying too much. Daniel brings Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Buddha, Nietzsche, and Flannery O’Connor into the conversation as if their works were as real to him as stars and sunsets.

If Daniel is Dante, his Beatrice is his stepbrother’s radiantly wholesome born-again wife, Tawney (Adelaide Clemens), and he tells her as much, spontaneously, as he explains what she means to him early in their beautifully rendered relationship. As touching as Clemens is in other scenes, whether she’s struggling to deal with a miscarriage or her tormented husband or finding consolation and grace at the bedside of a dying stranger, it’s hard to keep from loving her when she’s with Daniel. She’s simply moved by the misery and the music she senses in him and she brings it all to the surface. The sympathy that flows between the two makes acting seem almost melodious, a beauty that also infuses certain scenes between Daniel and his devoted mother Janet (J. Smith-Cameron), another easy to love performance. What makes the romance with Tawney so poignant is that it’s impossible, although the scene where they spend the night together, sinlessly, feels as emotionally satisfying as a physical consummation of the relationship.

“The Talent in the Room”

The acting in Rectify, like the acting in Deadwood, is so good it leads to thoughts of what Norman Mailer, writing about rival novelists, called “the talent in the room.” Just in the past year, I’ve seen performances in series television that deserve to be celebrated: in The Americans, Game of Thrones, The Crown, Call the Midwife, Happy Valley, Last Tango in Halifax, Outlander, Penny Dreadful, Peaky Blinders, Stranger Things, Mr. Robot, the list, as they say, goes on and on. Still, even among all that quality (and I’ve seen only a fraction of the competition), Rectify stands out. Thinking particularly of Aden Young’s portrayal of Daniel Holden, I have to go back to the most memorable male roles of the decade: Ian Macshane in Deadwood, James Gandolfini in The Sopranos, Kiefer Sutherland in 24, Jon Hamm in Mad Men, Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, Walton Goggins in Justified, Michael Chicklis in The Shield.

A more recent example, for the sake of contrast, is Dominic West’s ordeal in the latest season of The Affair, where a whole arsenal of adversity has been directed at Noah Soloway. West is always good, but his agony pales next to what Daniel constructively endures in Rectify. A more egregious version of what happened to Dominic is what’s been happening to Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend) in the new season of Homeland. Perhaps the onetime CIA rogue action hero will rise from the ashes, but his current degradation feels forced, and so we’ve finally given up on the series, which has never found a partner for Claire Danes’s Carrie Mathison equal to Damien Lewis’s Brody. Now there was a romance.

In the end, the common denominator comes down to that word again. For all the fire and glory of Game of Thrones, you don’t go there for truth. As The Atlantic article about sexual violence points out, shows like the 2016 Emmy winner for Outstanding Drama depend on the “shock-and-arouse approach,” where rape scenes have more to do with titillation than truth. Speaking of the 2016 Emmys, I should mention Rami Malek, whose performance in Mr. Robot earned him the award for Outstanding Lead Actor. Even so, as magnetic as Malek is as the genius hacker Elliot Anderson, he and his series don’t give you what John Lennon’s demanding. Rectify does.

As for the Academy Awards coming up next week, I haven’t seen enough to offer an opinion, but I rarely agree with the choices. The best, meaning truest, films and performances I see over the course of a year (when I can tear myself away from the home flat screen) are seldom even nominated.

DVDs of the first three seasons of Rectify are available at the Princeton Public Library; all four can be seen On Demand. Numerous sequences are on YouTube where someone has posted 32 minutes of the Daniel-Tawney relationship; see Tawny & Daniel (RECTIFY).