The Righteous had its UK première at Grimmfest 2021
“I have done wrong within my eyes and yours,” says Frederic Mason (Henry Czerny), praying on his knees in a triangle of light at the beginning of writer/director Mark O’Brien’s feature debut The Righteous. “In your ultimate jurisdiction, as always, I am at your mercy. My desire is steadfast but at your will. I am lost. Bring me my penance, that I might, through your exaction, revisit peace without concern. I beg you.”
Prayer comes easily to Frederic, as a former Catholic priest. He is a dour, haunted man in late middle age, racked with grief for the recent death of his adopted little daughter Joanie, and with unresolved guilt over past sin. He is also afflicted with mental illness that brings him memory lapses and ‘spells’. Though starkly beautiful in its own right, Scott McClellan’s monochrome cinematography also captures economically the colourlessness of Frederic’s existence. The only remaining light in his otherwise bewintered life is Ethel (Mimi Kuzyk), a widow who comes with her own history of loss, but whose love is what drove Frederic to leave decades of service in the church so that he could be with her in marriage. In spite, or even because, of his renewed sense of loss, this god-fearing man longs for further punishment, divine reckoning, perhaps even redemption. Frederic’s spiritual crisis, expressed concisely in that opening scene, will play out at length over the rest of the film, in a dramatic ordeal of self-torment and Satanic confrontation.
Frederic’s particular Satan comes in the form of Aaron Smith (played by O’Brien), who arrives at the Masons’ rural property in the middle of the night, as though in answer to Frederic’s prayers. Seeking help for an injured leg, but unforthcoming with a credible explanation as to what has brought him on foot to this remote location, the young man, from the generation after Frederic’s, at first arouses Ethel’s suspicions before winning her over with his vulnerability, his silver-tongued charm and his desire for a loving parent-child relationship which dovetails neatly into her own needs. Frederic also relates to Aaron, but in a different way, taking to conducting late-night conversations with him when both cannot sleep, and identifying Aaron as a ghost returned from his past, asking for a kind of help that Frederic worries will not just jeopardise his own soul, but bring about apocalyptic consequences for the entire world.
“Sin, it has a life of its own,” Father Graham (Nigel Bennett) tells the tortured Frederic. “What’s important is knowing the difference between what’s real, and what our conscience has created to punish us.” In these words lies the crux of The Righteous, which plays like a Catholic retelling of Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter (2011), with added elements from Yorgos Lanthimos‘ The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017). For as Frederic confounds guilt-fuelled nightmares and illness-induced hallucinations with stone-cold reality, and filters his every experience through the lens of a religious doctrine in which his own faith has grown shaky, this farmhouse tragedy comes darkly painted in the sort of shadowy ambiguity – call it doubt – which will prove Frederic’s undoing.
strap: In Mark O’Brien’s slow-burning spiritual thriller, a former priest works through grief, guilt and deepest, darkest doubt.
© Anton Bitel