“The Red Road,” the SundanceTV original drama premiering tonight, February 27th at 9pm, is the creation of Aaron Guzikowski, the writer of Denis Villeneuve’s deft “Prisoners.” Like that film, the series is the story of two men engaged in a kind of competition in which, it feels, there can be no winners. In “Prisoners,” the race was to find out what had happened to two kidnapped girls, with the father of one, played by Hugh Jackman, electing to torture his suspect of choice while the detective on the case, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, took more conventional routes. There’s a cop in “The Red Road” too, Sheriff Harold Jensen (Martin Henderson) of Walpole, NJ, who ends up under the thumb of ex-con and current criminal Phillip Kopus (Jason Momoa) after an incident involving Harold’s wife, Jean (Julianne Nicholson). Their uneasy partnership, based around an acknowledgment mutual self-destruction, seems destined to end in tragedy.
“The Red Road” is only the second wholly owned original scripted series to be produced by SundanceTV, and like its predecessor “Rectify” (which returns for a second season this summer), it’s filmic in ways that are exciting as well as problematic. It’s filled with dread rather than urgency or even momentum.
There’s little to push you forward from episode to episode, and with a season lasting only six episodes, “The Red Road” feels like it might play better as one giant movie than as something doled out week to week. But its characters are complex and accrue a tragic heft to them, especially Phillip, or as everyone calls him, as if to enforce distance, Kopus, an intimidating figure who does bad with a rueful sense of someone only giving in to what’s expected of him.
More than anything, “The Red Road” makes the case for why Momoa should be a mainstream movie star, though in some ways it’s about why that hasn’t happened yet. Momoa’s handsome and muscly enough to be a former “Baywatch” actor (which he was), but at a glowery 6’4″, he’s also capable of looking like he could break someone in half with his bare hands. Which is part of the reason he’s ended up mainly in genre roles as barbarian types — as Khal Drogo in “Game of Thrones,” as Ronon Dex on “Stargate Atlantis,” as the title character in “Conan the Barbarian” — along with the fact that, being non-white, he faces the usual Hollywood bewilderment at and bullshit about the roles he’s suited to play. But he’s legitimately magnetic as Kopus, whose mom Marie (Tamara Tunie) is part of the local Lenape Native American tribe, and whose father, Jack, is such a bum that he’s played by Tom Sizemore.
Kopus can be scary and calculating, but he also the wounded quality of an unloved kid, a sudden, awkward boyishness that comes out around his mother, who wants nothing to do with him, and when he has dinner with Sky (Lisa Bonet, Momoa’s real life partner), whom he knew as a kid. He’s likable, but he’s undeniably bad news, running various drug-related enterprises tying back to Jack and recruiting Junior (Kiowa Gordon), one of Marie’s foundlings to help out alongside the shady Mike (Zahn McClarnon).
Then again, Harold is hardly blameless either — but he did get a better deal in life, a former high school football player turned cop who married a state senator’s daughter. The area in which the series is set, on the New Jersey border not far outside New York City, is divided along lines of the largely white town and the tribe, who live in the mountains and don’t have federal recognition. Before they grew up to play cops and robbers, bigots and protestors, these characters all went to high school together.
Where “The Red Road” is painfully sharp is in depicting how these characters are all flawed, but that some of them, by nature of race, class and connections, pay a far higher price for the mistakes they make. At the start of the series, for instance, the police, including Harold, are consumed with finding out what happened to a missing NYU kid who likely came to the area to get drugs, whereas when a local Lenape boy is in an accident, the investigation is mainly focused on placating the angry tribal community.
Harold doesn’t have to work hard to cover up a crime, but is also able and quick to use his position as law enforcement to come down hard on members on the tribe, including Junior, who’s been dating his daughter Rachel (Allie Gonino) and who accepts his likely future economic status with an air of defeated inevitability. The show doesn’t let Kopus (who’s too self-aware for his own good) or his friends off the hook for what they do, but it does show how difficult avoiding a slide into criminality is for kids in their community, and how near-impossible taking another path is after that’s happened.
“The Red Road” has some terrific directors, including James Gray (“Two Lovers”), who helmed tonight’s premiere in his first-ever TV gig, and Lodge Kerrigan (“Keane”), who takes on the fourth episodes. The series, while not exceptionally good-looking, does capture the ways in which rural spaces can have their own claustrophobic feel, the wooded roads becoming tunnels through the darkness at night, the town a collection of people you used to know who’ve grown up into strangers.
“The Red Road” requires patience — perhaps more than is wise to ask of people in a landscape crowded with similarly dark dramas. But it does have resonance, especially in its portrayal of the ways in which people are unable to escape the situations in which they grew up. “We start out the way we’re supposed to be, and our parents make us into something else,” observes a character we never meet, whose recorded thoughts are excavated by Rachel in a storyline that may connect to the present. If there is a window in which these characters were unscathed by circumstance, it was a narrow one.