The grim yet gratifying new horror film The Righteous is a story with God on its mind. A confident debut feature from writer-director Mark O’Brien, who also stars in the film, it is most preoccupied with faith and the way it can take hold of our lives. This is not always an idealistic faith where characters cling to their beliefs to save themselves from impending harm. Instead, it is far darker and brutal even as it finds an uneasy beauty in its presentation. Shot in gorgeous yet sinister black-and-white, it stars a never-better Henry Czerny as the troubled Frederic Mason. A former priest who has recently experienced immense loss, he has retreated to his secluded home with his wife, Mimi Kuzyk’s resolute Ethel Mason, to grieve. However, they will soon discover that their humble abode is not a place of safety from the horrors of the world when a traveling stranger stumbles into their life after a supposed injury.
The man, played by a mesmerizing O’Brien, says that his name is Aaron and that he is all turned around after getting lost. Frederic is initially uncertain of him though seems to think that he may be connected to his prayers to God. They decide to give shelter to the man who seems to be very familiar with them even though they know nothing about him. Scenes play out with small details shattering through otherwise normal conversations. When Aaron remarks on Ethel’s name, you’re left wondering if she actually had shared it with him or if he had known it already without anyone telling him. Despite the suspicious nature of his presence, he soon embeds himself in the day-to-day life of the couple with no signs that he is actually going to leave to go back to whatever he said he was doing. The film then begins to burrow deep into the mind of the characters and us watching it, revealing a more unsettling undercurrent that has the potential to drown everyone underneath it.
We learn that Aaron brings a dark secret with him, something that will upend all we know about Frederic and what he believes may be the wrath of the God he once followed. While he seemed like a faithful man who had simply lost his way, we learn that the truth is far more disturbing. Through the many prolonged and tense conversations he shares with Aaron, we begin to slowly turn against Frederic the more that is revealed about him. The visual presentation serves as a representation of the character’s growing strife, with the darker hues and shadows seeming to swallow him up. Its striking nature is both beautiful to behold while also eliciting more brutal emotions especially when it takes a shift to be more violent. It draws from biblical origins to create terror that becomes existential for the characters, particularly Frederic who is the most flawed and uncertain about what to do. Does he cast Aaron out or does he take care of him as a way to find deliverance? Is it even possible for him to find that after all he has done? If it is possible, does he truly deserve any forgiveness at all?
There are not many answers that are offered to this multitude of questions. Rather, the film draws out dread from the impending feeling that doom is coming to this small home. It is in this that the film ends up striking a balance between chaos and grace in a way that feels like an extension of our understanding of faith. Just as characters turn to prayer for strength and find peace in supporting each other, it also contains a darker side. We see how Frederic finds support through a local pastor though we also see how Aaron represents the opposite to that. Faith is something that he hopes can bring salvation even as it was that very faith that gave him the power to hurt others. They are opposite sides of the same coin that take over the film with each scene flipping between the two, keeping us on our toes with every new revelation.
When Frederic ends up giving a monologue about how he had falsely become an ideal of what it means to be faithful, we see that this state of being was able to mask his more despicable acts. The more we see him wrestle with this, clinging to his faith as a man of God despite his callousness and cruelty, the more we see his mask begin to slip. Czerny plays these scenes with increasing desperation, hiding the depravity inside him that he wants to push away. You hope that Frederic could maybe find something resembling redemption even as we know it is likely too late, both for him and all that he has hurt over the course of his life. This internal turmoil ends up being represented externally, striking us with both an immense send of awe and terror as we see the full scope of O’Brien’s vibrant vision laid bare before us. It doesn’t always do so cleanly, though it is a messy world with even more messy people in it.
Without going into too much detail about the nature of these elements, they shift into being almost otherworldly and supernatural even as we are uncertain about how real they are. Adding to this unreliability is that most of this takes place when Ethel is not present, leaving Frederic to be one of the primary witnesses to the strangeness unfolding before him. These flairs still largely occur with a light touch, making sure we never lose sight of the emotional stakes and struggle facing down the characters. It feels like a parable of sorts as it remains focused on its construction while being vast in its aspirations. Certain elements may catch you unawares when you least expect it, rattling the foundation of the house as much as it does our own expectations. However, this all feels by design as O’Brien remains in complete control of his creation. Both behind and in front of the camera, he ensures each escalation creates the maximum emotional impact possible. Anything that defies understanding is integral to the experience, ensuring we feel the same overwhelming fear as the characters who are confronted by all that they cannot understand. When the world threatens to come crashing down around them, the film finds tranquility amidst the horror. It all leaves us reeling with the expansive and terrifying implications that are to be found in its audacious final moments.