Fantasia presents The Righteous; book tickets here.
Over the years, I have had the honour of reviewing some truly exceptional directorial debuts, from Saint Maud to Eighth Grade and Summerland. As a critic, I find nothing more satisfying than seeing a new vision come to life, 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 movie either defying or redefining genre boundaries, allowing cinema to grow, reform and blossom, just as it has done for the past century.
These outstanding debuts do not need effects, CGI or expensive sets; they are rooted in story, cinematography, sound, direction and performance. They offer something new while equally paying homage to the history of filmmaking. The movies end credits, just the start of your thoughts as the next few days are spent processing the ideas and themes of the film. Mark O’Brien’s The Righteous is one of those exceptional directorial debuts. Here, O’Brien’s quiet yet compelling film transcends the boundaries of the genre it inhabits. While at the same time defying simplistic explanation as themes of faith, grief, sin, and redemption merge. The result, a tension-laden story that slowly and carefully builds its horror through riveting performances, exquisite cinematography, and delicious sound design.
In an isolated farmhouse just outside Newfoundland, ex-Catholic priest Frederic (Henry Czerny) and his wife Ethel (Mimi Kuzyk) are mourning. Their adopted young daughter, tragically killed in a road traffic accident just a few months before. Her room in the house, a constant reminder of her death, while her young and troubled birth mother Doris makes regular house visits, only extending the grief both Frederic and Ethel struggle to escape. For Frederic, her death is yet another nail in the coffin of his beliefs. His relationship with the Catholic Church, distant following his departure from the priesthood to marry Ethel many years ago. His only console, the local priest, who listens and attempts to offer faith-based support.
With Ethel resting, Frederic decides to seal off his late daughter’s room, nailing timber beams across the door. But, as he sits in the hallway, a scream rings out in the forest surrounding their home, a guttural cry that stops Frederic in his tracks; was it a man? A deer? Or just a trick of the woods?. Venturing outside, a kitchen knife in hand, Frederic calls out, expecting no response. But, just as he thinks the trees have tricked him, a man responds, crawling into sight. As Frederic looks on, the young man (O’Brien) begs for his help, holding his leg in pain.
READ MORE: FANNY LYE DELIVER’D
Seeing the young man’s distress, Frederic puts down the knife and carries him 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 Aaron 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.
Cinema is no stranger to conversations on the nature of faith, sin and belief. Exquisite examples of films that have explored similar themes include Fanny Lye Deliver’d, First Reformed and The Night of the Hunter. Each one, tackling the nature of faith, subservience and sin in defining the individual, family or community. Therefore, you may be asking whether O’Brien’s movie brings anything new to the table. The answer to this is a resounding yes. Here, the genius of O’Brien’s film is held within its screenplay and performances. The intense one to one conversations between Frederic and Aaron slowly descending into darkness. Each meeting between the two, full of heart-pounding tension as personal faith, individual sin, and untold secrets are carefully unpicked.
O’Brien asks us to consider the very foundations of faith and sin, playing with biblical themes of good versus evil in a highly creative way. Here, the audience is never allowed to define the mysterious Aaron. Is he the devil? Or is he a vengeful God in human form? These blurred lines enable The Righteous to transcend many of the tropes that surround religious horror. For example, one of the sublime conversations between Aaron and Frederic centres on whether the devil is as scary as an angry and vengeful God. Here, concepts of fear, Catholicism and control converge as Frederic admits that he fears God far more than the devil, as it is God who holds the power of life, death, damnation and redemption.
Equally fascinating is the interface between grief, regret and sin contained within Frederic’s journey. The result, leading us to question whether any of this is real? Maybe we are just witnessing the mental breakdown of a damaged man who has lost all belief. Throughout The Righteous, these questions play with our expectations as we near the final act, the net around Frederic tightening as Aaron demands more. The film’s final scenes, a gripping culmination of the tension built throughout the proceeding acts.
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Shot in rich black and white, the cinematography and production design only enhance the shadows of O’Brien’s screenplay. While the lead performances from O’Brien, Czerny and Kuzyk are truly divine. Each word, sentence, look, and gesture, adding to the narrative’s mystery, tension, and complexity. And while The Righteous may play with similar themes to many of the significant religious and faith-based horrors proceeding it, the result feels fresh, innovative and creative. Its rich storytelling, beautiful direction and slow-burn horror, creating a thrilling, complex and undeniably brilliant debut feature. After all, when we turn to prayer for answers, do any of us really know whose listening? And who defines what constitutes a sin and the price we must eventually pay? Maybe the biggest sin is the secrets we carry, and perhaps our silent calls for help can pull in much darker forces.