Runtime: 97 minutes
Director: Mark O’Brien
Writer: Mark O’Brien
Cast: Henry Czerny, Mimi Kuzyk, Mark O’Brien, Kate Corbett
By Harris Dang
“The Righteous” (2021) tells the story of Frederic and Ethel Mason (Henry Czerny and Mimi Kuzyk), a grieving married couple who are in mourning after the tragic passing of their daughter. Frederic, in particular, has his sense of faith shattered after the tragedy and has become nonchalant from those who seek solace from him, including family friend Doris (a moody Kate Corbett, who is reminiscent of veteran actress Jacki Weaver in this reviewer’s opinion).
During their time of mourning, things take a strange turn for Frederic and Ethel when an injured stranger Aaron (Mark O’Brien) stumbles on their property, seeking help. Seeing him as a way to fill a void in their lives, Frederic and Ethel find Aaron a welcome presence. But over time Aaron begins to pry into their lives, bringing deep-seeded skeletons out of the closet and tumultuous conflict that will change their lives forever.
“The Righteous” is the writing/directorial debut of actor Mark O’Brien, who is best known for his performances in the TV show “Halt and Catch Fire” and the horror comedy “Ready or Not” (2019). In his latest film, he is collaborating with his “Ready or Not” co-star Czerny exploring the horror genre through the occult, and themes of religion, grief, selective memory and faith with an understated hand behind the camera via slow-burn pacing, intricate framing and lengthy scenes of character interactions. Does O’Brien pull it all together to make a disturbing, melancholic and compelling piece of work?
It is clear on the offset that O’Brien has a striking directorial eye. Crisply shot in monochrome, O’Brien and cinematographer Scott McClellan manage to bring a striking look that is endearingly cineliterate (particularly of films like “The Night of the Hunter” (1955)) and unsettling in its enclosed feel that veers toward both intimacy and claustrophobia.
Complimenting the cinematography is the sharp editing from K. Spencer Jones which utilizes both gradual zooms to escalate tension, and wide shots conveying the distance between characters (both figuratively and literally). It is from that solid foundation that O’Brien manages to bring the audience into the mindsets of the characters convincingly as they grapple with the gripping circumstances they are in. He also paces his film deliberately, bringing the character interactions to the forefront. However, he never patronizes the audience with insistent ways of filmmaking like blatant exposition, loud jump scares or an overdone musical score.
Consider the first conversation that Frederic has with Aaron. As he tells his story to Frederic, the camera slowly zooms in on him until the story reaches a turning point and the scene cuts to a shot of him from behind with his arms raised. It may not sound like much on paper, but on-screen, it is a palpable moment that shows that O’Brien has absolute control in how much he wants the audience in on the commotion.
Even with all the craft from behind the camera, the heart and soul of the film comes from the actors and thankfully, they all bring their A-game. Czerny is best known as a character actor who has appeared in numerous, memorable supporting roles in notable works like “Mission: Impossible” (1996) and “The Ice Storm” (1997). In “The Righteous”, he has a leading role to chew on and he does a marvellous job being able to convey the inner conflicts of guilt, anger and sorrow of Frederic that makes him remarkably human, especially when the third act revelations come into play. Kuzyk is beautifully poignant and warm as Ethel as she brings much-needed heart to the main relationship that makes it easy for the audience to sympathize, particularly in a fantastic scene where she recounts her life before meeting Frederic.
Last but not least there is O’Brien himself, who brings both an eerie and yet charismatic presence to the character of Aaron. He has to make it easy to believe that our lead characters want to help him as well as substitute him in a position to fill the void that was left by the death of their daughter and O’Brien brings a sense of naivety that makes his character believable. But he also has to be convincing as a menacing antagonist(?) towards the two and O’Brien thankfully does not resort to histrionics or pantomime in order to make Aaron a genuine threat, he underplays the role to great effect. Having him don a black hoodie in some scenes (courtesy of costume designer Christine Kenny) was a wonderfully playful touch.
As for its flaws, the deliberate pacing may be a deal-breaker for those who are reliant on plot and even with the visual splendour on display, the dearth of settings may bring a bit of tedium to the storytelling. However, the film pays off with a rewarding ending that ties all of its themes in a satisfying manner that will stay in the minds of the audience after it is over.
“The Righteous” is a remarkably assured directorial debut from O’Brien that provides a gratifying experience that is sure to chill, linger and provoke in ways that harken the best of horror cinema. Highly recommended.
“The Righteous” will be showing at the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival. Click the picture below to explore the festival program.