Around the halfway point of writer-director Mark O’Brien’s religious-themed thriller The Righteous, ex-priest Frederic (Henry Czerny), tortured by sin, is told by a current man of the cloth, “What’s important is knowing the difference between what’s real and what our conscience has created to punish us.” O’Brien’s film lives precariously in this gray area as the personification of Frederic’s guilt—and the key to his penance—winds up sleeping on his living room couch.
The Righteous is O’Brien’s feature directing and feature screenwriting debut, and he also plays the mysterious visitor with a connection to Frederic’s errant past. O’Brien, known primarily as an actor (Ready Or Not), is nothing if not an earnest and determined multi-hyphenate, and The Righteous is an extremely polished, low-budget production. It’s steeped in a grave sense of portentousness that burrows under your skin. The issue is the weighty script, bleak and heavy with apocalyptic consequence, which contains undeniably intriguing notions that are often not satisfactorily explored or don’t quite cohere. Still, O’Brien falling short of his ambition is a sin we can live with, and The Righteous works as a supernatural chamber piece and brain-tickling religious dialectic wrapped in chilly black-and-white visuals.
At the outset, we’re told that Frederic (Czerny) suffers from “mind lapses and spells,” which puts us on notice that we’re in the hands of an unreliable narrator. The grieving Frederic has just buried his recently deceased adopted daughter, when a limping stranger (O’Brien) collapses on his property in the middle of the night. Frederic, presumably never having seen the Robert Redford episode of The Twilight Zone, invites him inside much to the dismay of his wife, Ethel (Mimi Kuzyk). While tending to the injured man’s immediate needs, suspicions are piqued with each of his vague utterances: He christens himself Aaron, which Frederic believes is a lie. Frederic’s also not buying Aaron’s shaky explanation of how he wound up in such a remote and desolate patch of nowhere.
Aaron is an unnerving presence with a sweaty, trickster energy and a creepy Southern drawl. His solicitous charm can turn dark and menacing in a snap and O’Brien plays it to the slithery hilt. Aaron is the story’s engine, teasing out clues to his identity and purpose and drawing out information from a troubled former clergyman with more to hide than the audience initially knows. Those secrets are hardly flattering and manage to strafe the topic of impropriety within the Catholic church. Whether we should condemn Frederic for his sins or forgive him because he’s so desirous of punishment is not a choice we’re asked to make. O’Brien’s sympathy clearly rests with the morally compromised penitent, even if the veteran Czerny (so good in 1992’s The Boys Of St. Vincent) doesn’t completely earn our compassion. His existential cries for penance at the beginning become less effective as they start to sound like the pissed off grouses of upper management.
The gripping showcase scenes are the late-night dinner table conversations between the suspicious Frederic and Aaron, of whom there is much to be suspicious. They initially circle each other like boxers, hesitant to reveal too much. Aaron deflects questions about his identity and Frederic remains coy about his past. Eventually, Aaron reveals himself—and the film reveals itself, too. The Righteous is ultimately a story of atonement told from the point of view of one man’s subconscious. Frederic prays for the penance he craves, and when it comes, it’s in a form he didn’t expect and it wants to exact a price he refuses to pay.
Frederic’s attempt to reconcile with the God he betrayed through sin and abandoned through his marriage to Ethel emerges as the main through line, but it can be a struggle for viewers to navigate. O’Brien lacks the clean, unfussy writing style of Robert Bresson (Diary Of A Country Priest) and Ingmar Bergman (Winter Light), whose films cover some of the same ground as The Righteous. However, O’Brien’s effort is hampered by some unwieldy passages of convoluted dialogue that distance us from what the film is trying to say. Frederic’s point is well taken that God is scarier than the Devil because betraying God means being denied paradise. The point of local, alcohol-imbibing Father Graham (well played by Nigel Bennett), who Frederic turns to for guidance, needs to be extracted from his basso profondo declarations.
O’Brien squeezes an impressive amount of production value out of his small budget. Cinematographer Scott McClellan’s dread-inducing monochromatic images enhance Frederic’s spiritual and physical isolation. The mix of lighting cues, slow camera moves, and ominous angles communicate the unresolved turmoil in Frederic’s soul and provide ample breathing room for a production that’s mostly confined to one house. Andrew Staniland’s nerve jangling, hard-working score reinforces the thriller elements to a curious degree considering O’Brien is aiming for an elevated sense of religious inquiry that refreshingly keeps the crowd-pleasing jump scares and other tricks of the trade to a minimum.
The Righteous is an occasionally overwrought, genre-blending examination of the wages of sin and our desire to balance the ledger with the universe through penance. O’Brien creates some riveting two-player verbal duels, and he throws lot of ideas at the wall, even if they feel less purposely ambiguous and more stubbornly unclear. By the end, it’s up to the viewer to decide whether Frederic is relieved of his burden. What we do know is that when you long for spiritual punishment, you don’t get to choose how it’s delivered.