Structured like a play and filmed in inky black and white, actor Mark O’Brien’s feature directorial debut The Righteous is a dialogue-driven examination of grief, responsibility and penance.
The film follows Frederic Mason (Henry Czerny), a former priest who left the brotherhood to marry Ethel (Mimi Kuzyk) and raise a little girl. Ethel is devout and stoic and their late-in-life marriage feels simultaneously rock solid and susceptible to imminent collapse at the same time.
The Righteous opens in the aftermath of a tragedy: the couple’s young daughter has died, although the details of her death are undisclosed until later. O’Brien’s screenplay routinely withholds information, doling out the relevant details slowly and organically as the film progresses. This has the effect of turning the film into a kind of scavenger hunt, especially in the first act as the relationships and events coalesce through conversation and awkward silences. It is only in discussion with Frederic’s former priest colleague Graham (Nigel Bennett) and Doris (Kate Corbett), a frazzled, grieving young woman who shows up to pay her respects, that the details start to emerge.
This is all groundwork, however, for the appearance of a mysterious young man (O’Brien) in the middle of the night. His face is obscured in the shadows, his foot is mysteriously injured, and he avoids answering even the most routine questions. Despite the strong potential threat of violence or vandalism (and against Ethel’s protests), Frederic lets the man inside, then proceeds to lie to the police (Mayko Nguyen) when she shows up to investigate.
From here on out, The Righteous becomes a verbal battle of wills. There is never a question that there’s more to the stranger than meets the eye: not only is the truth about his connection to Frederic the film’s primary mystery, but he appears to vacillate between two distinct personalities. Half of the time the young man is innocent, naive and wounded; the rest of the time he is sharp-tongued, accusatory and prone to making declarative statements.
This last element is especially important given Frederic’s lapsed faith in the wake of his daughter’s untimely death. The way that Aaron Smith (as he is eventually named) rebuts, pontificates and even sermonizes with all of the evangelical swagger of a Sunday sermon is key. Aaron clearly knows how to weaponize language in a way that Frederic is guaranteed to listen. In the process, Aaron is also embodying everything that Frederic was and has lost.
It’s a religious tête-à-tête on a personal, intimate level, but despite the small scale, the stakes feel high (after all, a man’s soul hangs in the balance). The battle of wills, captured in a series of tense, terse conversations across a couple of days, is visually amplified by the starkness of the black and white mise-en-scene. It’s a bold creative decision by O’Brien, particularly since the Biblical overtones and the monochromatic color palette immediately invite comparisons to Charles Laughton’s 1955 American classic, The Night of the Hunter.
In the case of The Righteous, that’s not an issue. It too is engaged in thorny moral and philosophical debates, particularly when the film finishes dispensing mysteries and forces the audience to sit in the uncomfortable realities of who (or what) these characters are. It’s powerful, emotionally draining stuff, amplified by strong performances from all three leads, but specifically, O’Brien, who is doing revelatory work.
It doesn’t hurt that O’Brien has the juiciest role in the film. The role of Aaron requires a delicate balance between loud and threatening, quiet and reserved (the character is prone to sudden mood swings). An early example is how Ethel starts off the film afraid of him, but only a few hours later, Aaron has completely befriended her to the point that they’re singing and making pancakes together. In O’Brien’s hands, Aaron is a trickster figure who delights in challenging and confronting his hosts, and he takes extreme pleasure in catching the former priest in lies and wordplay as the film progresses.
The revelation of just who Aaron is and why he has come to antagonize Frederic at this time is complicated, but not unexpected. The Righteous is less interested in shocking its audience than it is in exploring what happens when these men revise their notion of fate, reconcile with their past and pay the price for their sins. It’s murky and engrossing, slow and methodical. Then it all comes together in a flash of violence and an unexpectedly divine final shot.
The Righteous isn’t a loud, bombastic film, but it does creep under the skin and nestle in the mind. If this is what O’Brien can deliver on a first attempt, I can’t wait to see what he cooks up next.