[Because Rellik has already aired in the U.K., we ask that you not post spoilers in the comments section if you have seen the series in its entirety.]
Rellik isn’t really as interested in being a serial killer drama as its premise might suggest. Thanks to, or simply because of, the narrative device that sees the story unfold in reverse, the six-part U.K. import airing on Cinemax is more interested in poking around the aftermath of a horrific series of events by interrogating — or attempting to interrogate — the reasons why they happened. In particular, Rellik devotes a great deal of its energy to the fallout from an acid attack that left DCI Gabriel Markham (Richard Dormer) seriously disfigured, and his personal life seemingly in tatters. But, as the premiere unfolds, beginning at the supposed end of a long manhunt for a serial killer who obscures his victims’ identities by using acid, the degree to which the series is doing something similar on a storytelling front becomes more apparent.
Because of its re-winding narrative Rellik reads as being twistier than the twistiest serial killer drama. Its setup — schtick or gimmick, depending on the mileage you get from the manner in which the story is told — has the deliberate effect of disorienting the audience; it appears to be laying its cards out on the table, while playing another hand behind its back. It sounds complicated and maybe even a little tedious — after all, who wants the answer before the question? — but Rellik is still, structurally, a fairly standard murder mystery: The story just begins with the identification (presumably) of the perpetrator, and then his or her crimes and motives are slowly made clear.
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That might make it seem as though Rellik is on a six-hour road to nowhere, seeing as how it begins with the story’s supposed climax and works its way backwards. Thankfully, writers Harry and Jack Williams have constructed a narrative in which the ultimate payoff comes from the discovery and understanding of motive, across a much wider array of actions than just murder. But, just to make things interesting, the end, as shown in the beginning, is most certainly not the whole story. For that, the viewer is going to have to stick around until the very end… or the beginning.
What is perhaps most surprising about Rellik is that it’s not entirely a technical exercise akin to, say, Memento. Entire sections of the story turn the search for motive in the Acid Killer’s spree into to a tangential part of a larger exploration of Gabriel’s fractured life, especially as it is slowly reveals the way in which things were not going well for him on a personal level long before an assailant threw acid in his face. For starters, he’s romantically involved with his partner, DCI Elaine Shepard (Jodi Balfour), but there’s more to the story, however, as Rellik hints, in its unique way, by demonstrating the things the characters know that the audience does not, that Gabriel’s involvement with Elaine is motivated by more than physical desire. To say more would be giving away one of the biggest twists in the premiere, but it does make for an interesting wrinkle wherein the series plays to knowledge only the characters have.
The rest of the series plays with that idea in interesting ways, limiting the audience’s knowledge of characters like Patterson Joseph’s Dr. Isaac Taylor or fellow burn victim and suspect Christine Levinson (Rosalind Eleazar) intentions and past actions, while at the same time working to keep Gabriel and those close to him in the dark about the true nature of the events unfolding around them. It’s a difficult balancing act that nearly pulls you out of the story because the trail of breadcrumbs being left by the script is often times so obvious. In the first episode, Gabriel is desperate to apprehend the primary suspect in the case, a man named Stephen Mills (Michael Shaeffer) who suffers from schizophrenia. The episode doesn’t waste time in suggesting Mills is a pawn in someone else’s scheme, and Gabriel is quick to propose that theory as well. Mills’ death in the opening sequence — shot down by a police sniper despite only reaching for a cell phone — is deliberately misleading. And while it acts as the inciting incident that sends the narrative spiraling backwards, it also raises the question of how or if Rellik plans to resolve Gabriel’s search for the person who disfigured him.
Though it’s working backwards, Rellik nevertheless functions in much the same way as a standard murder mystery. There are still plenty of red herrings to deal with and question the validity of, and although it makes it seem as though the series has traded the typical whodunnit for a potentially more compelling whydunnit, that’s not really the case here either. The end is most certainly not the end, which makes the twisting journey back to the beginning intriguing for reasons that go beyond getting answers to what set these events in motion.
Technically, the ever-rewinding narrative makes for an intriguing way to see a drama like this unfold, but the series is more rewarding when it examines the way in which Gabriel’s emotional scars extend far deeper than his physical ones. Gabriel’s disfigurement sets a distinct tone for the series, as Rellik seems intent on testing what the viewer finds unpleasant and what they’re willing to watch. That’s a way of saying the acid murders are not the worst thing to happen in the series, not by a long shot.
Ultimately, Rellik deserves credit for trying something new — or at least approaching a standard serial killer formula from a new angle. Where the series stands out, however, isn’t in the technical flourishes, but in how it slowly reveals itself to be an exceptionally grim exploration of some very damaged people and the ways that damage is either hidden or put display for all to see. For all it’s ever-twisting structural shenanigans, Rellik seems interested in getting to the bottom of something deeper than the question of “who did what to whom?” With any luck it will find what it’s looking for.
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Rellik continues next Friday @10pm on Cinemax.