Featured image: Mimi Kuzyck and Mark O’Brien in The Righteous. (Courtesy of Fantasia.)
Written and directed by Mark O’Brien. Starring Henry Czerny, Mimi Kuzyck, Mark O’Brien. Runtime 1h 36 min. This film had its in-person World Premiere at the Fantasia Film Festival on August 15, and its virtual premiere on August 18.
Mark O’Brien’s The Righteous explores the interesting “hook” of a mysterious stranger coming upon a home. The mysterious stranger is O’Brien’s Aaron Smith (“Original, I know,” says Aaron), who comes upon the property of an elderly couple one night, leg injured.
The home is owned by former priest Frederic Mason (Henry Czerny) and his wife Ethel Mason (Mimi Kuzyck), the reason Frederic left the priesthood. Playing with fascinating themes of sin, retribution and penance, Mark O’Brien creates quite the compelling storyline in his feature directorial debut, where he also writes the screenplay.
Frederic is kind to Aaron at first, though Ethel is initially hesitant to Aaron. In the morning, the roles swap; she’s turned a new leaf and is delighted to have Aaron there after learning about him. Important background: Frederic and Ethel are both in the grieving stage after losing their only daughter in a car accident. This is a reason for Ethel’s eagerness for him to stay; because of that very recent void. The focus of the film is on the pairing between Czerny’s Frederic and O’Brien’s Aaron, though Kuzyck has just as much power as the pair of them. She’s what keeps the film grounded emotionally, and is great in that role.
This is especially as the pairing between Frederic and Aaron explores a more religious side as Aaron forces Frederic to do a lot of soul searching… to not spoil anything. I’ll just say there are solid twists and turns, and its mystery is something I was delighted to watch unfold. For Czerny and O’Brien, they’re teaming up again after horror gem Ready or Not, so the chemistry works and feels familiar for them.
The film’s beautifully grounded in its drama, and a lot of the horror comes from the dread of O’Brien’s patient pacing, as well as the great score (by Andrew Staniland). I think I address this in every slow-burn horror film that I review: They aren’t always my cup of tea if I don’t click with the story, but I very much clicked with it here. As well, that kind-of pacing works so well for The Righteous.
This is thanks to O’Brien’s fantastic dialogue – as there are several monologues where each star in this trio get to shine. His screenplay is poetic and is magnetic in both its storytelling and these actors’ talents. I hung onto every word, especially Aaron’s monologue about throwing rocks at a river. These stories are brilliant and visual just as they weave it; and you can tell he spent a lot of time on these characters and their backgrounds. Czerny shines in the remorseful and reflective aspect of his character, and it is such a great, tortured performance. O’Brien acts just as well as he directs, capturing every side of his character.
The atmosphere he creates sticks with you after the credits roll. In a technical sense, too, he has brilliant use of shadows and silhouettes that accentuate the dread, like a silhouette of Frederic holding a knife when he first hears Aaron on his property. The film is in black-and-white, shot by Scott McClellan, and it is so gorgeous. It’s nice that this just isn’t a film where you’ll say, “well, the cinematography is beautiful,” and not compliment anything else. This is a well-rounded debut, one that shines in visuals, characters, performances and concept. That’s all in a film that, at its core, is an exploration of grief, but has so many fascinating aspects at play.
The Righteous had its World Premiere at this year’s Fantasia Film Festival.