Canadian horror-tinged drama The Righteous is a metaphysical meditation on sin and punishment across a stunning black and white.
Presented at Fantasia International Film Festival, the film is the directorial debut of Mark O’Brien, who also stars in an intriguing role. Heavy on the religious symbolism, the film revolves around a man wrestling with his mistakes as he confronts what he imagines being a pitiless god.
Following the tragic death of their daughter, former priest Frederic Mason (Henry Czerny) is at a loss. While his partner Ethel (Mimi Kuzyk) powers through a caring facade, Frederic struggles with visions of his past. “Memory lapses,” he calls them, meaning he spots glimpses of the dead girl as he goes about his day.
When a stranger named Aaron Smith (O’Brien) appears out of nowhere one night, hurt and looking for shelter, the Masons are on the fence. Who is this young man, and why does the protagonist feel the urge to help him?
Ethel is uncertain about what to do, while Frederic sees this as his chance for atonement. But a late-night confessional with his guest is enough to alert him that a supernatural force is at play. And it’s threatening the home he has built with Ethel.
The Righteous tackles the shortcomings of faith
With The Righteous, O’Brien crafts a tense drama that is more a reflection on the shortcomings of faith than a straight-up horror movie. The uneasiness pervading the picture doesn’t stem from understanding what sort of terrible crime Frederic might have committed years prior. The audience struggles with putting a finger on the ex-priest’s guilt, a burden that he seems to personify in the stranger, Aaron.
Trying to figure out who this character truly is is probably the hardest challenge The Righteous poses, and its most gripping element. A time bomb ready to go off, Aaron comes across as not fully human — certainly not benevolent — from the get-go.
“You called for me,” Aaron tells Frederic at one point and it sounds more ominous than it should. As the priest the man confides in, Graham (Nigel Bennett), says, one should be certain what they pray for. Frederic will learn that soon enough.
A good and bad dichotomy
The script is enhanced by the performances of the small cast, particularly Czerny and Kuzyk as the Masons.
Their lack of communication is somewhat mended by gentle physical touches as their situation changes. O’Brien, on the other hand, pushes the pedal on his Aaron from his first appearance, leaving little doubt as to where this stranger sits on the good and evil spectrum.
Kate Corbett deserves a special mention as wide-eyed, fragile Doris. Hers is a small role, but a crucial one nonetheless. Corbett infuses the character with such depth that her lines stick with you, hurting even more as the finale approaches.
The Righteous seems to have a clear dichotomy between female and male characters. While the men are complex, Ethel, Doris, and police officer Mary Hutton (Mayko Nguyen) feel a bit too clichéd. Loving wife and mother, fallen angel, the film’s moral compass: these female archetypes are elevated by their actresses.
The stunning cinematography is not enough
Yet, the real protagonist of this uneven moral thriller is the gorgeous cinematography by Scott McClellan.
His vision results in a vibrant, rich black and white that mirrors the debate on morality, peppered throughout by wide-angle shots in the most powerful moments. Architectural elements in the house also occasionally frame Aaron and Frederic, closing in on the two characters. Finally, credits to the suspense-filled tone go to the music by Andrew Staniland, accompanying Frederic in the descent into his personal hell.
A hell that becomes apparent in the explosive final fifteen minutes, perhaps the best in an ambitious feature debut that is too low on scares. The slow-burning build-up sets the table for a spine-chilling final act that one almost wishes would bleed over the central core of the film. At times, The Righteous fails to deliver on that tension it promises early on, to the detriment of a riveting prologue.
Stefania Sarrubba is a feminist entertainment writer based in London, UK. Traumatized at an early age by Tim Curry’s Pennywise and Dario Argento’s films, she grew up convinced horror wasn’t her thing. Until she sank her teeth into cannibal movies with a female protagonist. Yum.