After their young daughter’s funeral, Frederic and Ethel return to their isolated home to process their grief. The following night an injured stranger, Aaron, stumbles out of the woods, so the mourning couple give him refuge. But they soon learn that Aaron isn’t a stranger, and that his arrival isn’t serendipitous.
The Righteous has all the hallmarks of an intense and confident psychological thriller: the tight, three-person cast, the remote location, the perennial themes of grief, guilt and penance. Even director Mark O’Brien’s choice to shoot the full feature in black-and-white wonderfully emphasises the plot’s sorrow, and how the state of bereavement feels both unreal and unending. The driving force of the narrative, however, is undeniably its dialogue and characters.
The performances, with the director as Aaron, alongside Henry Czerny and Mimi Kuzyk as Frederic and Ethel, are beautifully surreal and ethereal. Aaron’s flurries of unreliable, high-paced dialogue acutely contrast with Frederic’s secrecy and Ethel’s idyllic memories, warping our sense of time and space, and forcing reality and dreams to coalesce. The tension and ambience this cultivates is truly palpable.
But while O’Brien boldly dissects how grief forces us to confront “what’s real and what our conscience has created to punish us”, his reluctance to spiral into the supernatural or grotesque — like The Exorcist, Pet Semetary or the recent Amulet — prevents The Righteous from landing its message with conviction. Instead, what feels like a steady accumulation of pressure flops in a dispiriting anticlimax, squandering the powerful deliveries of our lead characters.
In short, The Righteous employs many of the genre’s virtues, but, sadly, they fail to synthesise with a satisfying crescendo.
10 June 2022