The Righteous arrives in cinemas across Canada on June 3rd and Arrow Player later this year.
Over the years, I have been honoured to review some genuinely exceptional directorial debuts, from Saint Maud to Eighth Grade and Summerland. I find nothing more satisfying as a critic than seeing a new vision come to life and a fresh perspective committed to celluloid. These films are the very thing we critics live for, as directors announce their arrival within a blaze of creativity. Their crafted labour of love, defying and redefining genre boundaries as cinema grows, reforms and blossoms, just as it has done for the past century.
These outstanding debuts don’t need lavish effects, CGI or expensive sets; they are rooted in story, cinematography, sound, direction and performance – each one offering something new while equally paying homage to the history of the genre/s they represent. Mark O’Brien’s The Righteous is one of those rare, exceptional directorial debuts. Here, O’Brien’s quiet yet compelling film transcends the boundaries of the genre it inhabits. While simultaneously defying simple explanations as themes of faith, grief, sin, and redemption merge. The result is a tension-laden story that slowly and carefully builds horror through riveting performances, exquisite cinematography, and stunning direction.
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In an isolated farmhouse just outside Newfoundland, ex-Catholic priest Frederic (Henry Czerny) and his wife Ethel (Mimi Kuzyk) are in mourning following the tragic death of their young adopted daughter. In the silence of the farmhouse, her old room remains a constant and painful reminder. But this pain is only further deepened by her young and troubled birth mother, Doris, who makes regular house visits. For Frederic, her death is yet another nail in the coffin of his beliefs – his relationship with the church, now distant and obscure following his departure from the priesthood to marry Ethel. However, Frederic still meets regularly with the local priest, who listens and attempts to offer faith-based support for Frederic’s problems.
One night as Ethel rests, Frederic decides to seal off his late daughter’s room, nailing timber beams across the door with haste. But, as he sits in the hallway, his job complete, a scream rings out from the forest surrounding their home. But this is no ordinary scream; it is a guttural cry that stops Frederic in his tracks. As Frederic sits unnerved by the sudden event, he considers whether it could be a man, a deer or maybe a simple trick of the woods. Venturing outside, a kitchen knife in hand, Frederic calls out, expecting no response. But, just as his heart rate begins to settle, a man responds, crawling from the trees and into sight. The young man (Mark O’Brien) lays on the ground, unable to stand, begging for help.
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Frederic puts down the knife and carries the man inside, placing him on the sofa. But, who has he brought into his home? And how does this strange but likeable young man know so much about Frederic and Ethel? As the visitor worms his way into the family home, Frederic finds himself asking whether the boy is the answer to his prayers or the embodiment of his past sins.
Filmmaking is no stranger to conversations on the nature of faith, sin and belief. For example, Fanny Lye Deliver’d, First Reformed, and The Night of the Hunter have tackled the foundations of faith, subservience and sin. Therefore, you may be asking whether O’Brien’s movie brings anything new to the table? The answer is yes; here, the genius of O’Brien’s film is held within its complex screenplay and performances as a series of one to one conversations between Frederic and his visitor slowly descend into darkness.
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O’Brien asks us to consider the very foundations of faith and sin as he plays with biblical themes of good and evil. Here the audience is never allowed to define the mysterious visitor; is he the devil? A vengeful God? Or simply a home invader who triggers Frederic’s mental decline. These blurred lines enable The Righteous to transcend many of the tropes surrounding religious horror. For example, one sublime conversation between the visitor and Frederic centres on whether the devil is as scary as an angry and vengeful God. Here, concepts of fear, redemption and control converge as Frederic admits that he fears God far more than the devil. After all, God holds the power of life, death and damnation.
Equally fascinating is O’Brien’s ability to dovetail themes of grief and regret into Frederic’s journey, leading us to question whether any of this is real or just a symptom of a damaged man who has lost all belief. Throughout The Righteous, these complex questions toy with our expectations as we near the final act – the film’s final scenes a gripping explosion of ideas left for us to unpick.
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Shot in black and white, the exquisite cinematography and production design enhance O’Brien’s screenplay’s dark corners and shadows. While the superb lead performances of O’Brien, Czerny and Kuzyk bathe in the film’s rich complexity. The result is a thought-provoking slice of supernatural and religious horror and a thrilling, complex and undeniably brilliant debut feature. Here The Righteous asks us to question the very nature of faith and sin and the unknown entities we often pray to for help.
A thought-provoking slice of supernatural and religious horror and a thrilling, complex and undeniably brilliant debut feature.