Although the scares come in spurts, first-time director Mark O’Brien weaves a moody and contemplative story in The Righteous. A story about an ex-priest with a burdened past who goes through hell and back when he and his wife encounter a mysterious stranger. This stranger is played by Mark O’Brien himself, who wrote the film as well. The Righteous is a film dressed in black and white and while not as over-the-top as The Lighthouse was — this film is not shot in 4:3 ratio — the sense of dread and fear seem to compliment the muted color scheme.
Frank (Henry Czerny) and Ethel (Mimi Kuzyk) Mason are mourning the loss of their daughter, who was killed unexpectedly one day, and you feel the sinking feeling of loss in these scenes. Henry Czerny and Mimi Kuzyk are wonderful together and help ground the film right from the beginning. They’re a couple who love each other dearly, and it shows, from their frequent “I love yous” to their strong partnership in building a life together; this is key for when things go horrid later on, and the impact is felt that much more.
Throughout the film, we get hints and clues about another child that may have been abandoned or left behind, and it is a burden that follows Frank and challenges his faith. His constant internal battles with God result from this, and it is a guilt that eats away at him gradually. What happened to this child? What does this child have to do with the daughter that died? All of these questions begin to simmer in your head as you watch Frank and Ethel grapple with their faith.
One night, a mysterious stranger approaches the house in distress. He is seemingly injured and begs for medical attention. This is one of the best scenes in the film as we see Frank nervously approach this stranger with a kitchen knife, a downpour is ensuing, and we have no idea who this guy is. The man has no phone, hardly any recollection of how he got there, and he’s got something wrong with his leg, and so in the act of desperation but also karmic awareness, Frank brings him in for shelter. Could this be God giving Frank a chance at redemption? Could it be something more? The stranger’s name is Aaron Smith; he even points fun at his name, saying it lacks originality. Aaron seems cool at first, but there is something not quite right with him, and the film plays this up smartly and compellingly.
Lately, there appears to be a trend with these movies with a stranger showing up and causing all sorts of havoc and unwanted occurrences, most notably The Last Thing Mary Saw, which I recently reviewed. In that film, the stranger who visits our protagonists catalyzed what would transpire in the latter half of the film. In The Righteous, the stranger appears early on, but his effect on the story is drawn out, making his involvement in the quiet lives of Frank and Ethel boil to a simmer. As it turns out, Aaron is not the houseguest they all thought he was, and the movie takes us on an unsettling journey as Frank unravels who he is and comes face to face with his beliefs. The Righteous reminded me of First Reformed, sharing that quiet yet elegant brooding that made that movie special and rewatchable. While it doesn’t reach the highs of First Reformed, the performances certainly do, and the claustrophobic feel of the film compliments the black and white particularly well. I love movies when characters feel as bewildered and scared as you do, and we have solid performances to thank for that. When Aaron first shows up at the house, I was just as stricken with fear and uncertainty as Frank, and I was holding my breath throughout that entire exchange.
Unfortunately, the rest of the film isn’t as balanced as the first half. Toward the end, the feeling of surprise is gone. And the movie starts to get a bit on the nose with its messaging and overarching theme. While not eye-rolling level, the ending leaves a lot to be desired. Overall, The Righteous starts intense and intriguing, but it ultimately feels like a stage play that went on for too long. I look forward to Mark O’Brien’s next directorial effort, and he’s a fine actor to boot.
The Righteous is premiering at the Fantasia International Film Festival.
- Rating - 7.5/107.5/10
Overall, The Righteous starts intense and intriguing, but it ultimately feels like a stage play that went on for too long. I look forward to Mark O’Brien’s next directorial effort, and he’s a fine actor to boot.