What’s perhaps most striking about The Righteous is the sheer ambition on display from first time feature writer and director Mark O’Brien, who also gives the film’s most compelling performance. Pulling triple duty on any project is impressive and worthy of praise, but every aspect of The Righteous is distinct.
O’Brien’s script is full of dialogues that manage to harken back to Bergman’s most explicitly theological films while also offering new, and disturbing, ideas about how God may treat those who sin severely. The film’s stark black and white cinematography and O’Brien’s camera decisions also invoke Bergman. But not just Bergman, there are shots here that reminded me of film noir, Psycho, and more recent black and white folk horror and religious films like November and Ida. Every member of the rather small cast is bringing their best to the film.
The basics of the plot are not especially new: a stranger named Aaron (O’Brien) arrives unannounced and asks for help at the home of a grieving couple, former priest Frederic (Henry Czerny) and wife Ethel (Mimi Kuzyk), who have just lost their daughter. Mystery and tension ensue. The difference here is that Frederic has prayed for punishment, and Aaron may be the answer to his prayers. This concern with penance and God’s punishment for those who ask to be punished, are not wholly new either, but the way that The Righteous explores the idea that sin has a life of its own is wholly new, and thrillingly so.
This is a horror movie built overwhelmingly on scenes of people talking to each other, but the content of those conversations, the blocking, framing, and lighting of these scenes, and the seemingly ever present brooding score make it a powerfully dread-inducing experience. The fact that the film also plays with audience allegiances, as it reveals more information about the characters and their pasts, adds discomfort, as we’re never sure who we should be rooting for, at least between Aaron and Frederic as Ethel is only ever wholly good. In fact, she becomes a bit of a pawn in the game that Aaron and Frederic play as the film goes on. But this functions well enough for the film which beyond God’s wrath is also interested in the ways that men view and use women, both as objects to satisfy their lust and as tools for or symbols of their own salvation.
The most significant issue with The Righteous is that it’s not quite sure how much of a supernatural horror movie it wants to be. There are hints throughout, but the film makes a rather significant jump into the explicitly supernatural in its final ten minutes that is somewhat jarring. The film would perhaps have been better served by either gradually introducing these elements over the course of the story instead of ratcheting them up abruptly for the finale, or simply allowing the dread of the atmosphere and the horror of its ideas to stand on their own. They are certainly enough to make this an affecting horror movie.
I can’t say that I would have preferred either over the other, and this is not to say that the finale fails, only that it could have been a bit better. But the abruptness of the finale’s turn to the supernatural is certainly a symptom of the film being so ambitious, which, as I’ve said before, is all that we can ask of new voices in genre film. The Righteous is exciting then not only because it’s a painfully tense and thought-provoking film (which it certainly is), but also because it announces an astounding new talent in Mark O’Brien who I can not wait to see more from.
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