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Ray McKinnon reigns as one of the South's most insightful filmmakers 

His new Georgia-based series "Rectify" debuts April 22 on Sundance

DEAD MAN WALKING: After two decades on death row, Daniel Holden (Aden Young, center) is released from prison when new DNA evidence surfaces.

Courtesy Sundance Channel

DEAD MAN WALKING: After two decades on death row, Daniel Holden (Aden Young, center) is released from prison when new DNA evidence surfaces.

On the Sundance Channel's new drama "Rectify," premiering Mon., April 22, Georgia death row inmates wear white scrubs that look incongruously pristine, given the magnitude of the convicts' crimes. Consistent with actual Georgia prison garb, the white costume proves appropriately symbolic for the show's central character, Daniel Holden (Aden Young). New DNA evidence secures Daniel's release from prison after nearly 20 years on death row for the rape and murder of his 16-year-old girlfriend. The white garments emphasize the saintly, enigmatic aspects of Daniel's personality, which seems more Buddhist monk than stone-cold killer.

On set last August, the actors weren't the only ones wearing the scrubs. "Rectify" creator and showrunner Ray McKinnon donned the inmate wardrobe as well. A native of Adel, Ga., and former Atlanta-based actor, McKinnon began his career as the kind of colorful utility player who could always find work. Perhaps he was wearing white on the set to show solidarity with the incarcerated players, even though he doesn't appear on camera during the six episodes of "Rectify's" first season. Or possibly his choice of outfit was a little on-set joke along the lines of "the inmates are running the asylum."

While "Rectify" takes place in the present, Daniel often flashes back to death row's antiseptic white cinder blocks, replicated for the program, along with the rest of the sets, in a Griffin, Ga., warehouse formerly used to tan alligator hides. I visited during the filming of a particularly wrenching scene in which Daniel watches, through the window of a cell, as a fellow inmate smashes his own face in an act of self-destructive defiance. While sitting alongside episode director Romeo Tirone, McKinnon called directions to Young, guiding him through Daniel's emotions. "Look down, buddy. He just wants you to stand up and bear witness for him," McKinnon said as prop blood splashed on the glass. On a tiny monitor in a room separate from the scene, the shock and sorrow on Young's face registered powerfully.

Something about Young's performance — his almost birdlike attentiveness, his soft-spoken delivery, the cagey way he holds his mouth tight — subtly evokes McKinnon's own acting style. The lanky 55-year-old actor launched his career at Atlanta-area playhouses, including Marietta's Theatre in the Square, and broke into film and TV through Georgia productions such as Driving Miss Daisy and "In the Heat of the Night." McKinnon always comes across as an offbeat but authentic son of the South, whether playing a coach in The Blind Side, a NASA engineer in Apollo 13, or a sketchy U.S. Attorney on "Sons of Anarchy." So it's no surprise that his demeanor would influence Young, an Australian actor born in Canada.

Mostly, though, Young's stranger-in-a-strange-land performance comes from McKinnon's writing. McKinnon began writing "Rectify" after hearing about a spate of cases in which DNA evidence sprung men convicted of capital crimes. "I kept seeing these press conferences from guys who'd gotten out of jail after 10 or 15 years. I started wondering what his first real day would be like, and that's what started me thinking about this story," McKinnon says.

"Rectify" explores how a dead man walking responds to unexpectedly finding himself alive. "It's symbolically a dead man trying to decide if he wants to live, and the societal and emotional challenges he finds himself faced with," McKinnon says. "I think in some strange way that in that severe, cloistered world, he found a kind of ... peace is not the right word, but homeostasis, a kind of acceptance. It's hard for him to flip the switch and get back into the guidelines of society."

"Rectify" is about Daniel's release, but also, in an unexpected way, about the potential liberation of McKinnon himself. As an actor, writer, director, and producer, McKinnon may be the most original and insightful observer of the New South working today. He's amassed a body of thoughtful, knotty cinematic work that explores Southern Gothic dramas and quirky rural comedies that could be different facets of the same gemstone. McKinnon's work has never found the audience it deserves, but "Rectify" could provide an overdue correction.

When McKinnon's short film "The Accountant" won the Oscar for Best Short Film in 2002, the actor gave a short but characteristically colorful acceptance speech: "We'd like to thank the Academy for this wonderful honor in a category that still allows for a person who is just burning to make a movie to load the camera in the back of his daddy's old truck, gather up some talented dreamers and do it. And if the stars align and the fates conspire, that person might find themselves standing right here at the good God Almighty Academy Awards."

McKinnon shared the stage with his producing partners on "The Accountant," both actors: Walton Goggins of "The Shield" and more recently "Justified," and McKinnon's wife Lisa Blount, possibly most famous for playing Debra Winger's best friend in An Officer and a Gentleman. The trio produced more films over the subsequent decade via their company Ginny Mule Pictures, but the stars never aligned in quite the same way.

McKinnon wrote and directed two feature films, the drama Chrystal (2004) and the comedy Randy and the Mob (2007), but despite rich performances and a truthful, expansive vision of the South, the films never became art-house breakthroughs. That Evening Sun (2009), a drama produced by and co-starring McKinnon, won awards but never achieved the kind of crossover success enjoyed by something such as the magical-realism-influenced indie Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Even compared to the creative and financial struggles involved in making an independent film, McKinnon says that finding an audience can be an insurmountable challenge. "It's just too hard to get them seen," he says. "Maybe one day I'll do one that's even more low-budget, even more experimental. I don't know how to make them more viable — I don't think 'viable' even applies."

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