The Righteous has a palpably chilly atmosphere from the opening frames. Lit like a prisoner on trial, a man prays for guidance. A rural church has a funeral for a child. A remote farmhouse sits along amongst scattered trees, inhabited but looking more like a mausoleum for happier times. Where ever this unspecified location is, it’s a lonely place where the nights are long and the bulk of the daily soundscape is the wind whistling through the trees.
The penitent is Frederic (Henry Czerny), a former priest who has lost his adopted daughter Joanie in a random accident. Already long conflicted in his faith, the sudden tragedy has sent him reeling, riddled with doubt and guilt. He goes through the motions of daily life, stumbling through routines and neighbors’ well meaning condolences. His wife, Ethel (Mimi Kuzyk) is the only thing he has left to hold on to, her persistent gentleness and strength a bright spot in a dark time.
Further disruption literally crashes into their lives when an injured drifter named Aaron (writer/director Mark O’Brien pulling triple duty) collapses in their back yard in the middle of the night. Ethel is initially suspicious of the man’s odd story of getting lost while traveling to meet a friend, given that theirs is the only house in the area. However, Frederic sends the police away when she calls them, and convinces Ethel to let the young man stay, if only for some hot food and first aid.
No good deed goes unpunished, and there’s something very off about the young stranger. He can’t quite keep his stories straight, and seems to know things he shouldn’t, possibly gleaned from snooping about the house as the couple tries to sleep. Aaron is also prone to memory lapses and odd seizures. He’s passive aggressively hostile toward Frederic, while ingratiating himself to Ethel to insure he receives an invitation for an extended stay.
The bulk of the film’s tension is the battle of wills between the two men, each skirmish in their war for control revealing that both of them aren’t exactly who they say they are, the chance meeting perhaps less than coincidental. Who or what is Aaron, really? Why did such an obviously devout man leave the church and his hometown for exile in the northern cold? The stark black and white cinematography helps heighten that feeling of unease, making late night tea and dinner table conversations look more like interrogations. Frederic’s pulpit trained rasp and Aaron’s syrupy southern drawl are apt representations of their philosophies on secrets, sin and God. Is there every really the solemn forgiveness of Catholicism? Or just the binary brutality of the revival hall’s fire and brimstone?
The limited setting and tendency toward slow motion to add visual and emotional heft to a dialog heavy film somewhat recall the direction of indie darling Mickey Reece, but Mark O’Brien’s script doesn’t have Reece’s dry humor or sharper edges to keep the narrative moving forward. There’s a fantastic central idea here (that an Old Testament style God is far more vengeful and dangerous than the Devil, doubly so for the fallen devout) but there’s too little plot structure surrounding it to support the weight of the idea’s larger implications.
Aside from Frederic and Aaron, the rest of the limited cast doesn’t serve much purpose aside from underlining major themes or acting as thinly sketched fulcrums to drive the the movie toward its strongest conceptual card. The Righteous is a very talky film, with abundant monologs. In a movie that has a heavy preference toward tell, rather than show, all of these extra reminders of salient points seem like overkill.
There’s some solid visual craft here. A desolate and desperate atmospher helps to sell a genuinely disquieting mood even when the plot occasionally stalls. All of the performers are well cast, even if some of the roles as written are somewhat limited in scope. Henry Czerny and Mark O’Brien have an excellent rhythm to their escalating power struggles, bound together by circumstances that perhaps neither one of them has precisely asked for. Mimi Kuzyk’s Ethel doesn’t have nearly as much screentime, but quietly and effectively communicates why she is so precious to Frederic, and that when their little family was still intact, how she was the heart that made their house a home.
Overall, The Righteous‘ ambition seems have slightly outstripped its ability to execute its smart take on religious horror conventions, losing its crackling escalation into darker territory with ancillary exposition that feels repetitive, a stop gap until it can let its big twist loose. The material would have perhaps been better served as a tight two hander of a short, so that the cat and mouse game between the protagonists and the movie’s most clever ideas would have had a more impactful chance to shine.
The Righteous is Mark O’Brien’s first feature length film, and his efforts to aim high despite obvious budgetary limitations are commendable. There is abundant potential in what the movie was trying to do, even if not all of it succeeds in its loftier goals. The Righteous might not be a revelation, but it never feels like a punishment, either. Given a shot at a sophomore effort, he very well might find himself on the upright path his characters here are searching for.
WICKED RATING: 5/10
Director: Mark O’Brien
Writer: Mark O’Brien
Stars: Henry Czerny, Mark O’Brien, Mimi Kuzyk
Release date: August 15th 2021 (Fantasia Film Festival)
Studio/Production Company: Panoramic Pictures
Run Time: 97 minutes