Being a Good Samaritan Backfires in 'The Righteous' [Fantasia Film Festival]

A woman holds a man tightly in a protective pose
[L-R] Mimi Kuzyk as ETHEL, Mark O'Brien as AARON in THE RIGHTEOUS

A former priest seeking penance for unconfessed sins has his prayer answered in an unexpected way in Mark O'Brien's feature length directorial debut The Righteous. Filmed in grainy black-and-white and shot on a shoestring budget, The Righteous manages to make a powerful impact with its spare resources. Bigger budget films like The Seventh Seal and Don't Look Now have achieved notoriety for tackling heavy topics like the death of a child and the nature of judgment and redemption, respectively, but The Righteous handles both and does it with fewer cast, fewer locations, fewer special effects, and equal resonance.

Frederic Mason, a former priest (Henry Czerny; Ready or Not), and his wife Ethel (Mimi Kuzyk) mourn after the death of their adopted daughter, Joanie. Although Ethel openly grieves the loss, Frederic seems to waiver between feeling detached and angry. He confesses to his mentor, Graham (Nigel Bennett) that he wonders if God is punishing him or if God even sees or cares about his suffering.

A man stands in a doorway
The couple wants to be left alone to grieve in peace, but their isolation is interrupted by an unexpected cry in the dark. A stranger named Aaron Smith (O'Brien himself, who also co-starred with Czerny in Ready or Not) appears outside the house, injured and lost. He begs Frederic to have mercy and let him inside. Frederic reluctantly accepts after some hesitation because "it's the right thing to do." This benevolent act sets the Mason family on a course towards epiphany, as this stranger performs a different kind of home invasion. Once Aaron arrives, their lives and marriage will never be the same.

Most of the story takes place in the couple's secluded and lonely house. Although filmed on location in the rural outskirts of St. John's, Newfoundland, the house seems to exist outside of cultural boundaries. O'Brien chose production designer Jason Clarke to create the look of a dream, and the inspired choice to film in black-and-white contributes to the timeless feel. The themes of faith and mourning draw instant parallels with the films of Ingmar Bergman, especially Winter Light. Life is not kind to this couple, and the outside weather reflects that, with blustery winds and chilly rains that rattle the windows and set a bleak, harsh tone (hats off to sound mixer Scott Yates). In contrast, during moments where Frederic thinks the cloud has lifted, the sound of silence projects a mood of calm. The movie makes good use of both sound and silence to draw the viewer into the perspective of Frederic.

A man outside looks down at a man lying on the ground
A still from THE RIGHTEOUS

As the screenwriter, O'Brien makes good use of his small ensemble of characters, with a script that gives moments for each actor to shine. And each actor brings nuance to the performance. The two men share intense conversations and serve as contrasts to one another. Aaron presents himself as an open book, using conversation and storytelling to impress himself upon Frederic, who remains aloof and suspicious of Aaron's true intentions. On the other hand, Aaron evades the most important questions of all: how he happened to get lost outside their house, in the middle of nowhere. Although good-hearted Ethel initially resents Aaron's presence, she eventually displays joy in having a young person in her house again by singing and making pancakes. Kate Corbett also appears in a small but important role as a neighbor with complicated connections to the Mason family.

This suspenseful and surreal film keeps viewers guessing until the end. The film makes use of sharp, quick cuts to build and maintain a palpable sense of unease. Aided by a film score composed by Andrew Staniland, O'Brien builds a scene to climactic terror, only to cut sharply to daytime, calm, and stillness. What's real; what's a dream? The storytelling of Aaron causes us to lean in and listen closely for hidden clues as to his true intent. While the story tackles heavy themes like faith, the existence of God, and fate vs. determinism, the intensifying pace and steady suspense keep the story from being dragged down by those themes. Viewers can dwell on the existential dilemmas after, if they choose. Mark O'Brien marks himself as a director to watch, and if The Righteous is an indication of what's to come, he's found a new fan.

Release info: The Righteous played at the Fantasia Film Festival 2021. Coming to Arrow on June 10, 2022. 

Final score: 4 out 5

See also: my review of Agnes, which tackles similar themes.