What should one fear above all: the Devil himself or God almighty?
When a sudden tragedy fells his adopted daughter Joanie, former Catholic priest Frederic Mason (Henry Czerny) begins to question his devotion to God even as he consoles his wife Ethel (Mimi Kuzyk). Their grief is exacerbated when Joanie’s actual mother Doris (Kate Corbett) arrives to make excuses for not attending the funeral, and family friend Father Graham (Nigel Bennett) even goes so far as to suggest Frederic return to the cloth. With so much already weighing down upon them, a stranger named Aaron Smith (Mark O’Brien) appears in the night at their secluded country home, appearing hurt and begging for help. After doing the Christian thing and taking him him in, Frederic quickly suspects Aaron isn’t who he seems — or even what he seems — taking a crisis of faith to whole different level.
Playing a key role in addition to writing and directing, Mark O’Brien has something to say about religion, sin, and guilt. With a production looking easily adaptable to the stage and deliberately filmed in glorious black and white, the story builds in layers with small interactions and slow reveals, hinting at possibility while playing its cards close to the chest. The trailer is a good estimation of what viewers are in for, from whispered warnings about iniquity to a soundtrack scored with an apprehension engine, painting in sound and light that things are not as they should be. Is something truly supernatural or otherworldly going on, or is it all happening in the mind of a mortal man consumed by decades of guilt?
Hollywood religious thrillers, especially those questioning faith, often crib from The Exorcist and derivative fare. Unlike action-thrillers such as Stigmata or effects-strewn films like The Devil’s Advocate, this lower-budgeted movie plays out in a similar sandbox using innuendo in place of any “vulgar display of power.” The Devil is ever in the details, but so too is God and His relationship with humanity and how some men build their own prisons without walls. The Righteous is a psychological thriller flirting with existential threat, the story of a man desperate for accountability yet foolishly vague on the fulfillment of such penance… and the horrific revelations that might come of it.
In spite of being a modern story, there is a timelessness to the production, from lighting reminiscent of The Tragedy of Macbeth to a handcrafted country home strewn with apocalyptic oil-on-canvas framed prints. It’s almost jarring when Frederic asks if Aaron has a phone, because why wouldn’t he in the present day and age? The role of Frederic feels tailor-made for Henry Czerny’s intensity and subtlety, a showcase of talent different from his mainstream work in Mission: Impossible as Kittridge, but he also shared the screen with O’Brien for a deadly game of Ready or Not. There are several scenes throughout The Righteous that are practically staring contests between the two actors — maybe too many — but the story also hinges upon these moments.
As everything shown is from Frederic’s point of view, there’s an element of an unreliable narrator herein, a possibility the production doesn’t go out of its way to confirm or deny; are we seeing what’s really happening or one version through the lens of the character? At face value, taking the weight of the world upon one’s shoulders seems a bit self-important, but if it were actually true, it’s never a bad idea to walk on eggshells when invoking or provoking a Supreme Being.
The Righteous is not rated for a little blood, some big innuendo, and a questionable tomorrow; good luck and good night.
Three skull recommendation out of four