The black-and-white beauty of The Righteous proves writer/director Mark O’Brien (Ready or Not) is just as skilled off-camera as he is in front of the lens. Performances from Henry Czerny (the unhinged father figure in 2019’s masterful Ready or Not), Mimi Kuzyk, and O’Brien himself feel honest and revelatory in a way I was not expecting. The film raises several philosophical questions to its audience, but the most intriguing one of all reigns supreme: does one sin cancel out a previous sin? Who really makes the ultimate decision on when we have earned acceptance or forgiveness?
The ideal way to most enjoy The Righteous is going in as blind as possible. Frederick (Czerny), a former priest, and his wife, Ethel (Kuzyk), have just lost their adopted daughter to a tragic accident. Still reeling from the incident, Frederick prays hard for it to all make sense. Should he return to priesthood? Why would God take her away? The arrival of a mysterious stranger, who says his name is Aaron Smith (O’Brien), throws even more unbalance into their lives. Aaron’s first appearance is howling in pain from a sprained foot out in their yard—lost, alone, and begging for help. Something about Aaron’s story isn’t quite adding up; the first red flag goes off when he claims that he “forgot” his tent when leaving to meet up with a friend. Frederick graciously suggests that Aaron should stay the night, though Ethel is less enthusiastic about the man’s sudden arrival.
Over the course of the film, these three central characters share intimate stories with one another. They connect on a spiritual level, despite Frederick’s recurring nightmares. O’Brien does a great job of getting us inside Frederick’s head. It forces the viewer to call into question every piece of information and every bizarre occurrence. Is Aaron just a temporary stand-in for their daughter, or does his significance go beyond stumbling onto the right lawn? The more times Aaron collapses (and the speed at which he becomes completely at ease with his surroundings), the deeper the mystery burrows its way into one’s mind.
While the horror angle may not be explicitly scary, it is certainly effective, particularly in the ambiguousness of the concept. The ending is so strong that it makes the slower parts of The Righteous feel entirely worth the wait. The strength of a prayer, the importance of one’s worth, and the commitment to faith and structure are all vital to understanding the deeper meaning behind the film. Love it or hate it, there is simply no denying the raw power of those characters and the tightly-woven narrative.
The Righteous screened at the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival.