A vengeful God, or perhaps god, is at the core of writer/director Mark O'Brien's feature debut The Righteous, an unnerving yet deeply engaging religiously themed thriller about a burdened man, Frederic Mason (Henry Czerny), who feels the wrath of a vengeful God. The Righteous premiered to acclaim at Fantasia International Film Fest where it picked up the fest's Cheval Noir and Silver Award. The film also picked up a Bloodie at the 2021 Blood in the Snow Film Festival and the Grimmfest Award at the 2021 Grimmfest.
There's little denying that The Righteous will bring to mind such Bergman works as Winter Light or, more recently, Schrader's First Reformed. Yet, The Righteous is most certainly a cinematic beast all its own with a shattering, deep under the skin performance by Henry Czerny that is most certainly among the always dependable actor's finest performances. Czerny'z Frederic we will learn is a former priest turned married man to Ethel (Mimi Kuzyk). He carries baggage, spiritual and emotional and other, and is lost in the throes of grief when a mysterious, wounded stranger appears at his door appearing to need his help. This man, Mark O'Brien's Aaron, seems to instantly shift the atmosphere in which he finds himself. He is rescued, at least initially, yet it's apparent that there's more to him and a good part of the journey of The Righteous is watching Aaron's story unfold as he goes from not quite welcome houseguest to wannabe savior.
Or maybe something else.
The relationship between Frederic and Aaron is volatile yet immersive, each seemingly living into the question "Does God exist?" while also refusing to relinquish control of who they've been and who they've now become. Set almost entirely within the confines of an isolated home, the film was shot in Newfoundland, The Righteous is simultaneously immersive and claustrophobic with Scott McClellan's black-and-white lensing providing few moments of comfort against a persistent eeriness that invades every movement, every spoken word, and every silence.
Andrew Staniland's original music provides appropriate accompaniment to O'Brien's occasionally too precise yet consistently overly intimate dialogue that keeps us wondering how the constantly shifting power structure will play itself out. Aaron seems nearly always in a place of vulnerable authority, yet much of The Righteous is a spiritual chess match in word and deed.
While both Czerny and O'Brien are extraordinary here, enough cannot be said about Mimi Kuzyk's rather remarkable supporting performance as Ethel. At times, it seems as if her own grief is on the back burner yet it serves as a bridge for nearly everything that unfolds here. The Righteous is a remarkable first directorial effort from O'Brien, an assured and patient thriller with its cinematic feet firmly planted in both the psychological and spiritual thriller realms with quiet hints of the supernatural throughout. O'Brien is gifted with an ensemble cast, himself included, obviously in touch with this material and the finer nuances necessary to bring it to life. The Righteous is a dark film, a fable really, that asks us to reflect upon the sins of the past and the God, not the Devil, whose wrath is waiting right around the corner as punishment for deeds both real and imagined.
The Righteous is a film that practically begs for a second viewing, O'Brien's words and images even more significant and meaningful in the hours and days after viewing as one experiences a multitude of spiritual "Aha!" moments. Picked up by Arrow Films for a June 10th release, The Righteous is a film about grief, belief, and the ways in which both linger within our human experiences.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic