The Righteous is a quiet and simple cinematic story told through a black and white lens, but the story could just as easily have found a home on the stage. A fable-like tale about religion, guilt, and morality, the film marks the feature directorial debut of actor Mark O’Brien.
It starts at the funeral of Frederic (Henry Czerny) and Ethel’s (Mimi Kuzyk) young daughter, which Frederic fears is God’s punishment for his leaving behind the priesthood some years ago. That evening, outside their home in an isolated village, a stranger (O’Brien) appears desperate for help. Perhaps out of guilt, or maybe out of fear, Frederic takes this young man in.
The stranger, whose name we learn is Aaron Smith, ingratiates himself in Frederic and Ethel’s home, filling a void created by the death of their daughter. Before long, we learn that Aaron’s appearance at their home might not be by chance and his intentions may not be pure.
O’Brien manages to maintain an ominous atmosphere throughout the film and imbues each scene with an undercurrent of tension. The feelings of loneliness and isolation are rife here too and, from the small cast to the desolate Newfoundland landscape, the director takes advantage of every opportunity to effectively hammer those ideas home. To top it off, the script is well-written, giving the actors—specifically Czerny and O’Brien—the chance to satisfyingly spar across the dinner table.
The black and white film is aesthetically stunning and there are some truly beautiful frames that dance with the light and shadow, especially inside the home. The stark, binary cinematography is also used to effectively emphasize the ever-present religious battle between good and evil—a narrow mindset that leads to harsh consequences as the secrets of Frederic and Aaron come to light.
The Righteous is not a film that was made for a universal audience. Its slow pace and heavy dialogue make the ending startling and unexpected—but whether it’s effective is entirely up to the viewer. But for those who delight in soaking up dialogue and piecing together a mystery via verbal breadcrumbs, The Righteous will be right in your wheelhouse.
The Righteous played virtually at the 2021 Fantasia Film Festival.