The Righteous is available to stream on Arrow Player. Neil Baker originally reviewed The Righteous at Fantasia Film Festival 2021.
Like the devilishly complex Saint Maud or the nerve-shredding Possession, good psychological horror doesn’t require lavish visual effects or extensive budgets, it involves the dissection of a thought process, fear or behaviour through story, cinematography, sound, and performance. Mark O’Brien’s The Righteous understands that the best psychological horror comes from challenging the audience to think outside the box as themes of faith, grief, sin, and redemption merge to create an outstanding directorial debut.
In an isolated farmhouse in Newfoundland, Canada, an ex-Catholic priest, Frederic (Henry Czerny), and his wife, Ethel (Mimi Kuzyk), sit in mourning following the tragic death of their young adopted daughter. In the silence of the farmhouse, their daughter’s old room is a constant and painful reminder of loss, as are the random visits from her birth mother, Doris. For Frederic, her death has placed 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 many years before.
As Ethel sleeps one stormy night, Frederic decides it is time to seal off his late daughter’s room, nailing timber beams across the door with haste. As he sits in the hallway, his job complete, a scream rings out from the forest outside, a guttural cry that instantly stops Frederic in his tracks. Unnerved, he considers whether it could be a man, a deer or maybe a simple trick of the wind through the woods. Venturing outside, a kitchen knife in hand, Frederic calls out, expecting no response. But, just as his heart begins to settle, a man responds and crawls from the trees. The young man (Mark O’Brien) cannot stand, his leg wounded as he begs for help. Frederic puts down the knife and carries him inside, placing him on the sofa. But as the night turns to the day, he wonders who he has brought into his home. Is the boy the answer to his prayers or the embodiment of his past sins?
Throughout film history, directors and screenwriters have explored the nature of faith, sin, and forgiveness, from Fanny Lye Deliver’d to First Reformed and The Night of the Hunter. So does O’Brien’s movie bring anything new to the table? 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 young visitor descends into darkness. Through these intelligent and unnerving discussions, O’Brien asks us to consider the very foundations of faith. The Righteous never allows us to define the mysterious visitor who triggers the dark events to come, and the film is all the better for it. Here O’Brien’s ability to weave together grief, regret, and belief has us asking whether what’s happening is real or just a symptom of a damaged man spiralling into an inner hell. The result is a thought-provoking slice of psychological horror that asks us a simple question: When we pray for help, do we know who or what is really listening?