In Mark O’Brien’s occult drama The Righteous (2021), former priest Frederic Mason (Henry Czerny) and his wife Ethel (Mimi Kuzyk), are grieving the loss of their daughter. Giving sanctuary to Aaron Smith (O’Brien), a young stranger who turns up outside their isolated Newfoundland home one night, Frederic finds himself under the scrutiny of this disruptive presence.
The Righteous is one of those quiet and brooding “great” works of cinema. It’s not one to shout from the proverbial rooftops about; instead, its strength is that once it gets under your skin, it will stay there.
Grief is a sensitive subject and The Righteous casts characters as victims of cruel fate. Frederic and Ethel are introduced in a sympathetic way, and the beginning of the story feels as emotionally black and white as its monochrome cinematography. The only conflict appears to be Frederic’s separation from God and his priestly duties when he chose to commit to Ethel.
We learn the once devout man is not separate from his human self, which is subject to temptations and is tainted by flawed choices. Films do not exist in a vacuum, and The Righteous, which has nothing to do with child abuse, cannot avoid echoing the priesthood’s fallibility that has been exposed in recent years.
The occult aspects are so subtle that we could be forgiven for thinking it isn’t that type of story. O’Brien taps into our collective unconscious, our heritage and its myths to create a disquieting experience. Instead of being forward in his presentation of the occult, he instead allows us to sense the fear of our superstitions, religious and spiritual beliefs.
The hairs on the back of one’s neck rise as we sense a presence. The stranger’s face transitions from vulnerable and genuine to something untoward, becoming more terrifying as we wonder what lies behind the visage. The stranger echoes the insidious playfulness of dark forces to whom the hunt is like a sexual exchange – first the foreplay, then the penetrative act and the orgasm.
Choosing to film in black and white forces viewers’ focus on the faces, gestures, and words of the actors. It highlights the dynamic the three performers share, each escalating the drama. Ethel finds a way to fill the void for her parental love. Frederic’s words and actions depict a man who loves and draws people close, but also pushes them away, and Aaron is the catalyst.
In early moments Aaron comes across as a character trapped and intimidated, but he’s the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing. The stories he tells of his childhood and life are a ploy to lure Frederic into a confrontational trap.
The strength of the film is found in its ability to function as a drama and an occult horror simultaneously. O’Brien uses a shot with a trombone to create an eeriness, a conflict between the two types of narrative while empowering the subtlety. This image taps into the deceit of what’s real and what’s not that is at the heart of religion, which requires followers to choose to have faith where there’s no tangible proof.
The Righteous is a film possessed by the spirit of a stage play, with an emphasis on dialogue and the minimal settings to transition between. In the cinematic medium, O’Brien has control over what viewers’ see. He frames the action, directing our attention, forcing us to see the performance in the way he wants us to.
The dominant role of the filmmaker and the submissive roles of the audience function in contradictory ways. The power dynamic can be flipped because while our gaze is controlled, we have the power to choose how we feel. Images and words, sound and music, provoke a response. Each of us will respond differently to The Righteous based on our life experiences and spiritual sensitivity. This is not controlled by the filmmaker, neither is it wholly under our control.
Similar to intrusive thoughts and feelings that pass through us, the power dynamic of controlling what one sees in this film is a complicated and contradictory one. This lies at the heart of understanding and appreciating The Righteous.
Conversation-heavy, it’s a film to revisit, to listen to what the characters say with an awareness of what will happen. It’s a story that seduces with aesthetics, not spectacle. The words expose the souls of the characters and reveal which ideas and themes will emerge.
A story about grief and confronting the past, O’Brien taps into the nuance of grief. It’s not only the loss of someone we care about. Frederic has repressed his past, hidden it in the shadows, and if he’s not openly or consciously grieving, subconsciously there’s a feeling of regret. Whether it’s denial or the simpler explanation of self-preservation, the stranger exposes this regret, guilt, and shame, forcing Frederic to confront himself.
The story addresses the idea that the choices we make are a source of our grief. They’re catalysts of transformation, symbolic of a metaphorical or metaphysical death as we travel our life’s journey. To live is to grieve our imperfect series of transformations shaped by our choices, and our capacity to hurt and to love.
The striking challenge is if forgiveness and peace cannot only come from others, then it must come from within. Frederic finds himself forced to confront his sins and repent, as he would have encouraged his parishioners to do so. Morality is a human concern, something valuable we gave ownership over to God. In The Righteous, God’s absence suggests that moral decisions are guided by man’s mind and heart, not the expectations or will of a deity.