“Be careful what you wish for. But be certain what you pray for…”
…All of us are familiar with the phrase “be careful what you wish for,” but how many of us connect that same thought to a prayer? My atheistic ass isn’t much of a believer in prayer myself, but, for those that are, when you consider the fact that a prayer is simply a wish projected towards an all-powerful being, there is a dangerous strength to that which one must consider. If God does exist, and he really is listening, then you had better be sure you know what you’re praying for, because it will be answered.
Writer/director Mark O’Brien has smashed onto the scene with his nerve-wracking debut feature The Righteous, which just premiered at the Fantasia Film Festival, using that unsettling concept to flip our idea of what a prayer really is in one of the most unique religious horrors I’ve seen in quite a long time.
On the surface, The Righteous is a fairly simple story. Ex-priest Frederic (Henry Czerny) and his wife Ethel (Mimi Kuzyk) have just lost their adopted daughter. Traumatized by the sudden death and in a perpetual state of grief, Frederic sees the chance for some much-needed youthful company in the house when Aaron (Mark O’Brien) suddenly arrives late one night, lost and in need of help. Against Ethel’s better judgement, Frederic allows Aaron to stay the night since it’s “the right thing to do”, unaware of the horror which he has just invited into his home.
The Righteous is one of those films that creeps into your skin like a cold, winter wind. Shot in black and white and featuring an utterly chilling score from Andrew Staniland, quiet scenes of Frederic and Ethel attending their daughter’s funeral set the stage for a somber mood that never dissipates. Set mostly at their home in the woods, surrounded by dead trees, the only sign of life a howling wind, there is an overwhelming sinister presence working its way into The Righteous. From the beginning, it feels like an eerie ghost story told around a campfire. Only this is no average haunter, and it’s much more abstract and terrifying than any traditional ghost.
Aside from the eeriness of it all, the first thing you’ll notice about The Righteous is how well-crafted it is, especially for a first-time feature. Shooting in black and white is the perfect choice here, as Scott McClellan’s rich cinematography enhances the despair of our protagonists. This film is a rapture of pain. We watch the old couple cry and scream and mourn over their loss. Both Frederic and Ethel refuse to answer any questions about how they’re doing from their friend Doris (Kate Corbett) or concerned officer Mary (Mayko Nguyen). And hey, I get it, “how are you” after the death of a loved one, your own child no less, is a pretty senseless question. But that refusal to answer signals an unchecked grief growing inside of the couple, represented by the depth of the darkness in the imagery which seems to grow deeper and deeper as the film goes on.
If you’re opposed to black and white movies, I hope you reconsider. As internally ugly of a film as it is, The Righteous is a visually gorgeous movie.
Being an actor himself, O’Brien has a great sense for character, and shows off that understanding of how to portray the most human of emotions. Everyone in the cast delivers nuanced, masterful performances, in particular Czerny and O’Brien, who are captivating together. The two worked together on Ready or Not, and it’s clear they built a chemistry, because they play off each other so well that I could watch them exchange dialogue for hours. Which is a good thing too, since The Righteous is in essence an actor’s movie where conversation carries the story, allowing for moments of nail-biting intensity as Frederic and Aaron probe deeper into each other’s lives and discover unexpected secrets that push both to their limits.
The Righteous is one of those films where I can hear the easily distracted crowd crying “nothing happens”, but that couldn’t be a more wrong summation of the movie. O’Brien’s script is one where every single word matters, and most of the action is in the verbal sparring of our characters. It’s set up that Frederic suffers from lapses of the mind, which results in creepy visions and brings into question whether events walking the line of the supernatural are real or not, but aside from that and a few brief moments of violence, it’s in the philosophy of The Righteous where the true horror lies. There are lines of dialogue and ideas in here that will make you shudder more than any ghost will.
This film isn’t for those seeking a whole lot of scares and fast-paced excitement. The Righteous is a meditative experience bristling with tension. It’s an emotionally claustrophobic movie that burrows way down into the soul and digs up the painful ugliness that resides there. All throughout, there is a theme of punishment and suffering in silence which Frederic and Ethel have fallen victim to, and Aaron is the knife intent on cutting that pain out and bringing it into the light.
The Righteous abounds in shocking revelations. Drips with grim atmosphere. And it features provocative performances from Czerny and O’Brien that you could argue are the best of their careers. It’s a quiet, psychological horror film that requires a great deal of patience and asks the audience to consider disturbing questions about faith and humanity. Because of that, it won’t be for everyone, and some viewers may not like that more questions are posed than answered. That being said, The Righteous is one of the most unsettling studies of grief to tear out my soul recently, and a must-watch for those who like actor-driven films. With his first feature, O’Brien has already established himself as a talented director, and a new name to watch for years to come.
By Matt Konopka