The hype for The Righteous, (not to be confused with Righteous Blood), actor Mark O’Brien’s feature debut as a writer and director, was certainly being cranked up to eleven ahead of its premiere at this years’ Fantasia. The festival’s publicity went as far as comparing it to Night of the Hunter and Passolini’s Teorema before saying it was “destined to become a Canadian horror classic”.
Those kinds of claims raise some high expectations. The kind of expectations that are hard for any film, let alone a debut feature, to live up to. The kind that can hurt a film that’s good, even excellent, but not a new masterpiece. Can The Righteous live up to the claims being made for it?
Shot in stunning black and white, The Righteous begins at the sparsely attended funeral of the daughter of Frederic (Henry Czerny, Ready or Not, The Curse of Buckout Road) and Ethel Mason (Mimi Kuzyk, the Day After Tomorrow, Final Cut). Just as God killed David and Bathsheba’s firstborn, Frederic sees this as a punishment. Not for adultery but for his having left the priesthood years ago.
Returning home the couple try to put their lives back together. But the arrival of the mysterious Aaron Smith (Mark O’Brien, City on a Hill, Halt and Catch Fire) complicates, and potentially threatens their lives.
The Righteous is part supernatural horror and part drama about faith, guilt and loss. From the moment Fredric lies to the police about Aaron’s identity we know something is up, it’s just a matter of working through the mystery to find out what. And that’s something the film is in no rush to do. Much like Hellbender, this is a slow burn with a very small cast and set of isolated locations. Unlike that film, however, The Righteous managed to build a decent level of suspense and keep me interested.
It also manages to make its isolation feel ominous. O’Brien is a native of Newfoundland and he uses its start, cold, landscape to help create a foreboding atmosphere. It looks like the kind of place where bad things happen and secrets lie buried. But not always deep enough to stay that way.
Carried mostly by strong performances from the leads and some well-written dialogue, The Righteous won’t be for everyone. And honestly, that’s about all you should know going into it. The film’s appeal lies in the sense of dread as secrets of the past and present are slowly revealed, right up until the unsettling climax.
The Righteous makes its world premiere as part of the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival. You can check here for more details and ticket information.