THE RIGHTEOUS is a thriller in the style of Old Hollywood. Though cinema is oversaturated with stories of troubled, guilty, white men, sometimes a director comes along who knows how to make the story feel unique. Actor and first-time director Mark O’Brien achieves this by looking to the films of the past to tell a story with contemporary implications. His biggest influence seems to be Charles Laughton’s sole directorial effort, THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, which tells the story of a family taken advantage of by a con man posing as a preacher. He adapts a pious, authoritative persona in order to muscle his way into the home of a troubled widow and her children. Using God as a shield for his amorality, the man, played with chilling precision by Robert Mitchum, is able to manipulate by employing the unchecked privilege afford to patriarchal religious figures. THE RIGHTEOUS examines that privilege further, using his characters to directly interrogate the assumed virtue of religious leaders.
The film tells the story of Frederic (Henry Czerny), a former priest who has recently lost his daughter. Years ago, he fell in love and left the church behind for a normal life, but the death of his daughter brings him back to God. We meet him in the depths of despair, begging for guidance. His prayers are angry, accosting God for taking away one of the people he loved most. His wife Ethel (Mimi Kuzyk) is hurting as well, but she does not share his anger. For her, this is a normal tragedy of life. But for Frederic, it feels like a divine punishment. In the midst of their mourning, a stranger named Aaron (O’Brien) arrives at their house at night with an injury. Frederic invites him in, and the film goes from a story of grief to a tense thriller about the sins men use their power to get away with. Aaron is a figure of quiet chaos, with an innocent face that masks vengeful intentions. He quickly gets into Ethel’s good graces, putting Frederic on edge. Soon, it seems like Aaron has fully inserted himself into the lives of this couple and Frederic must face the truth about himself.
The film is shot in black and white, with deep shadows, emphasizing the film’s suspenseful tone as well as foreshadowing the violence that is guaranteed to come. O’Brien employs a Southern gothic tone that makes everyone and everything feel frozen in time. With only a handful of characters, it’s a minimalist film that fills every inch of empty space with a sense of deeply spiritual tension. Frederic’s growing fear of Aaron is really a fear of judgment. He walks through his home skittishly, as if divine retribution could be around any corner. O’Brien handles the double duty of director and co-star with surprising ease, allowing the film itself to speak as much as the characters. Usually films directed by actors — especially their first — feel more like theatrical pieces that showcase the talent of the performers and not much else. But THE RIGHTEOUS has an immersive atmosphere, that draws viewers fully into the world.
The centerpiece of the film is a story Aaron tells Frederic about his childhood. It’s delivered like a classic acting monologue, with O’Brien using his expressive eyes to mimic the raw emotion of a child met face-to-face with trauma. Frederic’s reaction shots further sell the scene, as he slowly realizes that he is in mortal danger from Aaron’s rage. Though Czerny is the protagonist, O’Brien is the star here, using the film to showcase his intense dramatic talent. By the time we reach the violent, supernatural finale, Frederic is a man lost, spiritually and emotionally. Aaron breaks him and it’s thrilling to watch.