In the Garden of Good and Evil with “Rectify”

I recently saw a movie that followed the typical superhero formula, twisting and turning in all the right places, with very attractive movie stars and an outrageous special effects budget. Along with its box office entertainment value I think it was also supposed to deliver a strong moral premise, judging by some of its preachier dialogue.

As I left the cinema I pictured the film’s writers in some windowless office, leafing through notes from the director, with pink arrow-shaped stickers indicating “place moralizing HERE.”

Too often movies and other narrative works seem to employ moral arguments for reasons other than their intrinsic value — they instead become a way to generate predictable tension, or as a device to move the plot forward. The creators themselves do not seem the slightest bit interested in the arguments they are presenting — they are not something they appear to wonder or worry about, as their clumsy, half-hearted or condescending treatments indicate.

Good vs. evil, wrong vs. right, guilt vs. innocence and other deeply significant moral questions are ironically very prominent in superhero or action movies, and sometimes there appear to be half-hearted attempts to add some complexity by portraying the hero as “flawed”. But by the end of the movie we know with absolute certainty who or what is good or evil. So, though we may be entertained, we do not leave the theater in any way intrigued or engaged. Moral considerations are instead treated as window dressing, pretty and well defined — almost aesthetic in their purpose.

Which is why I was interested to come across the Sundance series “Rectify”, which appeared on my Netflix screen a couple of weeks ago before the launch of their new season.

The show is about a Georgia man, Daniel Holden, played by Aden Young, who has just been released from death row after his murder conviction had been “vacated”. But, though he is a free man after 19 years, he has not been exonerated, and there is a lot of mystery around what happened the night his teenage girlfriend was raped and murdered, or whether he is guilty or will be re-tried.

The creator of “Rectify”, Ray McKinnon, is mostly known as an actor in shows like “Deadwood” and “Sons of Anarchy”. I’m always interested in actors who become writers and how that informs the way they tell stories — but that is not what caught my eye here. It was instead this interview, where McKinnon admits he felt compelled to write the story for reasons unknown, even to him.

It is an interesting story to be drawn to, and it says a lot about the sensibilities of the artist. Of course a man released from death row is potentially a dramatic story, and he could have approached it more along those lines — but McKinnon’s interest seems to run a lot deeper than that.

The theme of guilt and innocence is, in fact, freshly played out in all the relationships in this series. Some characters behave worse than others and are outright nasty or sinister. But most are trying hard to do the right thing, or to sincerely find their way, but, of course, it’s not so easy to know what that is. And, even when they think they do know, they may disappoint themselves by doing otherwise.

An interesting case in point is Daniel’s firebrand sister, Amantha, played by Abigail Spencer. No doubt Amantha’s hotheadedness and outrage helped her spring her brother from prison. But these same traits also alienate her from others, and perhaps have caused her to obsess over her brother’s plight in unhealthy ways.

What is interesting here is how she is aware of, and struggling with, her own limitations. Even when it comes to something as innocuous as the urge to connect, like in the first episode when she says she wants to hug her brother all the time, she also admits it would probably “freak him out”.

You can see the same sensibilities at work when Daniel's mother asks her stepson to call her Janet instead of mom. You can tell she is not entirely comfortable asking this of him, in spite of her best intentions for her jailed son, and neither does her stepson know what to make of it, either.

In truth, nobody in this series has it all figured out. They all struggle with innocence and guilt, what is right or wrong, and even the best and most well-intentioned among them them are tainted and confused by the less-than-perfect world they live in.

I doubt that McKinnon mapped out all his character’s struggles to mirror that of the lead character in theme, if not in substance. But that is what happens when the artist is genuinely drawn to the subject matter — there are quite natural resonances throughout the story that serve to strengthen and reinforce the central line. These resonances reminds me of the beautiful patterns we see occurring naturally in chaos theory’s exquisitely repeating fractals.

One scene in particular gave me the chills as I watched it, catching me quite off guard. It happens in the third episode, where one character brings up how much technology there is around us and warns another not to be “lulled” by it or to confuse it with the workings of a civilized society.

This same point has been made in every way imaginable, and many superhero movies are actually devoted to this man vs. machine theme. But to me this short, simple treatment was much more emotionally resonant and disturbing.

Why? I think it comes down to, among other things, the power of artistic coherency. The characters all ask questions, struggle, and wonder, and we, in turn, are engaged and interested, sometimes in unpredictable ways.

I think, like McKinnon, it’s okay and even desirable to begin a project with a sense of mystery, to be sincerely and humbly drawn to a subject or theme without knowing why. I think the best art comes from an artist searching through his or her art to find answers, or to come to terms with something, to wonder, dispute, or question.

Only then can we feel not just the story, but its underlying humanity.