REVIEW: The Righteous (2021)

dir. Mark O’Brien

Following the death of their daughter, former priest Frederic (Henry Czerny) spends his days grieving with wife Ethel (Mimi Kuzyk), and – although both are bearing up stoically under the weight of their crushing loss – a dread claws at the edges of Frederic’s psyche: wracked with Catholic guilt, he can’t shake the fear that he’s being punished by a wrathful God. So when a stranger named Aaron arrives (director O’Brien) he senses an opportunity for penance, though this new arrival may be bringing something other than salvation.

Shot in unctuous black and white by DP Scott McClellan, there’s a Bergmanesque ambience to proceedings, particularly – with its religious musings, themes of vengeance and dead daughter – The Virgin Spring (1960). To some this might seem inaccessible, but O’Brien – making an unbelievably assured directorial debut – keeps such weighty ideas couched in reality, the triptych of characters brought to life with naturalistic authenticity by the leads. O’Brien and Czerny in particular are mesmeric, their brokenness feeling real and lived-in, existential terror always rooted in character rather than sermonic didacticism.

As plot twists unfurl there is familiar genre imagery, but sequences are staged with an original vitality. There’s also a thrilling fusion of place: shot on location in Newfoundland and Labrador, there’s a sense of events existing in a parabolic fairy-tale at the edge of the world, whilst Aaron’s thick accent hints at a Southern gothic, gone North. Similarly, revelations that both Frederic and Aaron suffer “lapses” – which could be spiritual visions, or perhaps psychotic breaks – recall Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter (2011), with a potential impending Armageddon which may, or may not, be real.

Visually and emotionally stunning – with a closing shot that ranks amongst the year’s very best – O’Brien has delivered a minor masterpiece of moral complexity, divine retribution and a personal apocalypse of the soul.

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Tim Coleman

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