The Righteous

Righteous

You’ve heard of cringe comedy? The first half or so of Mark O’Brien’s heavy spiritual/psychological thriller The Righteous is cringe drama. That’s not really a put-down. In scene after scene, O’Brien’s camera stares at people clumsily working through grief or uncertainty, and never averts its gaze. One or two times, I had to look away from the unrelieved anguish. It may not sound like a giddy night at the movies, but The Righteous is honest about intractable despair and fear in a way few films are, and it has an ace in the hole in that longtime reliable acting wizard Henry Czerny as Frederick Mason, a former priest whose guilt and sadness more or less animate the story. 

Czerny became known internationally for his indelible performance as serial child abuser Brother Lavin in 1993’s Canadian TV movie The Boys of St. Vincent and its sequel. Here he plays a different breed of tormented man of the cloth. Frederick was a priest until he met and fell in love with Ethel (Mimi Kuzyk), whereupon he left the Church and married her. They adopted a daughter, who has recently died. The two stay in their remote house, silently grieving; to blow off steam, Frederick sometimes goes out to the yard and works on disassembling their daughter’s swing set. One night, a young man, played by Mark O’Brien himself (he also wrote the script; this is his feature debut as a director after several short films), shows up outside Frederick’s house, injured and lost. 

Despite Ethel’s misgivings, Frederick offers the man — who gives his name as Aaron Smith — shelter for the night. Soon, Ethel spends time with Aaron and quickly grows fond of him, perhaps seeing him as filling the void left by their daughter. The Righteous has only seven speaking roles, but they’re all there to make points about how the effects of past sins ripple outward forever. In the first scene, Frederick, laid low by guilt, beseeches God to punish him. Aaron, it begins to seem, has been sent to deliver on that prayer. I’ve seen The Righteous described as a horror movie, but that description possibly suggests a more literal apocalypse of blood and demons than it is. Instead, the movie is shot in crisp black and white, and its chills are rhetorical (indeed, the movie would work well on the stage) and subtle. The apocalypse happens in whispered conversations between people buffeted by uncanny forces they can’t control or understand.

Like practically everyone in Canada, O’Brien must have seen and been scorched by The Boys of St. Vincent (though he was only eight when the film first aired), so when he had written a former priest sunk under the weight of sin, I would guess Henry Czerny was his first choice. Czerny is the guy you want for square men with twists and loops in their nature; the angular Clark Kent/Morrissey features of his youth have settled into the grays and lines of painful wisdom. The Righteous is probably the biggest role he’s had for a while, and he excels at putting across Frederick’s soul implosion. When Frederick tries to smile, he looks false and genuinely alarming, like an alien attempting to mimic human expressions; when someone tries to compliment Frederick, he responds with what I can only call a visceral scoff. His self-disgust is fierce but held just underneath the surface, held with great and graceful aplomb by this open-hearted actor.

As an actor, O’Brien holds his own with the master, giving Czerny something real and potentially sulfurous to sniff and respond to. (The two played father and son in the 2019 horror-comedy Ready or Not.) As a filmmaker, O’Brien lets his camera linger on Czerny as often as possible. If the director falters here, it may only be due to budget. We hear that Frederick is subject to visions, fugues. Not a lot is done with that angle, though it does serve to handwave away some of the overtly supernatural stuff we see. More than once, Frederick is shown waking up, and more than once I was confused as to whether that meant he had only dreamed the previous scene. It may not matter in the literal sense; by the end, we understand we’ve been watching one man’s inner war on himself, and everything else we’ve witnessed is sort of up for grabs. Czerny enlists in this war with all the restraint and subtextual power he’s always had, and O’Brien does everything he can to give Czerny a battlefield worthy of him.

Explore posts in the same categories: art-house, thriller

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