THE RIGHTEOUS (Fantasia 2021) – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas
A brazenly ambitious horror film about grief and belief, actor Mark O’Brien dominates both in front and behind the camera in the additional roles of writer and director in one of the year’s most unforgettable horror films, The Righteous. Shot in crisp, high contrast black-and-white, the tale of an ex-priest forced to face his demons hinges largely around a series of intensely focused one-on-one conversations. Yet so steady is the writing and so solid are the bulk of the performances that this is all this film really needs, so much so that when it strays from that path the impact of what in other films would be jump scare highlights, here they seem somehow out of place. Thankfully, however, O’Brien knows to trust his cast and trust his words, and the showier horror set pieces are kept to a minimum, leaving the real terror of The Righteous buried in the words of its key protagonists.
Recently making its world premiere at Montreal’s Fantasia International Film Festival, The Righteous follows Frederic (Henry Czerny), who was once a priest but who left the Church when he fell in love with his now-wife of many years, Ethel (Mimi Kuzyk). The film begins as they mourn the loss of the young daughter they adopted from young, naïve local woman Doris (Kate Corbett), raising the child as their own. Deep in mourning, Frederic questions not just his own faith but questions about justice more broadly. But he and Ethel are dramatically pulled out of their grief with the arrival of the enigmatic Aaron (played by O’Brien himself), a young man who walks out of the hauntingly beautiful Newfoundland woods and collapses injured at their door. While Frederic welcomes him in, Ethel is more suspicious but soon their feelings towards Aaron flip as the curious visitor extends his stay, revealing as much about his hosts as himself their relationships take twists and turns that could not be imagined.
That O’Brien is both actor, director and writer here comes as little surprise; this is very much a performance-driven film, and there is clearly enormous trust involved in allowing his superb cast to do so much of the required heavy lifting. And it pays off, with a gripping and suspenseful story that is both meaningful, unpredictable and, ultimately, very moving. Both Czerny and Kuzyk unquestioningly carry the film, not just because of the clear spark between them that makes them so convincing as husband and wife, but because neither ever flinch in their strong deliveries of their respective characters.
Although a small character, Corbett’s Doris is tragic and charming in equal measure (a modern-day Susan George if ever there were one), and indeed it is somewhat ironic that the only performance that seems a little out of place is that of O’Brien himself. While he excels in the writing and directing categories, to be somewhat crude about it, Aaron feels like he lies at the center of a Venn diagram between a clichéd hillbilly, a 90s Britpop bass player, and someone cosplaying Brad Dourif from Exorcist III. But without doubt, the rest of the cast – and, perhaps ironically, O’Brien’s own superb direction and writing – are strong enough to elevate the film, and they do so with tremendous gusto. The Righteous is a confident, compelling debut, a dark journey into the soul that satisfyingly leaves as many questions unanswered as answered.