Release Date(s)2021 (July 19, 2022)
Studio(s)Panoramic Pictures/Vortex Media (Arrow Video)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A
The Righteous is the directorial debut of Mark O’Brien, who also wrote the screenplay and appears in a key role. With a nod to Ingmar Bergman’s films and the Gothic tradition of story telling, the film is a psychological drama that examines the effects of guilt, faith, and loss on an elderly couple.
Frederic (Henry Czerny) and Ethel (Mimi Kuzyk) are grieving the accidental death of their adopted daughter when a stranger emerges from the woods that surround their remote home, claiming to be injured. Initially suspicious of him, Frederic eventually invites him in. His name is Aaron (Mark O’Brien), and as he and Frederic talk, he seems to know a lot about his host: that he is a former priest, that he violated his vows many years ago, and that he’s been praying to God for forgiveness.
Through a series of conversations, the two men examine Frederic’s dark past and somber present and deal with some heavy-duty questions. Must sin always be punished? Can wrongs be justified with good deeds? Is a tortured conscience God’s way of dispensing justice?
Aaron is an unsettling presence with an intensity and a creepy Southern drawl. His charm can turn dark and menacing in an instant, and this balance is riveting. Is Aaron merely a person who stumbled into Frederic and Ethel’s lives or is he more than he appears? Important pieces of information are revealed sporadically, clarifying Aaron’s role in their lives. Not until late in the film is a supernatural element introduced.
Czerny conveys Frederic’s guilt-ridden, tortured soul with his grim expression and the look of a man suffering from a combination of constipation and self-hatred. He goes through the motions of living, consulting with a local priest (Nigel Bennett) occasionally about his thirst for redemption, and mourns the death of his faith. The role is designed to make Frederic a sympathetic character despite the baggage he carries. Czerny manages to achieve this early on, so when haunting incidents in his past are brought out by Aaron, we are shocked.
Director Mark O’Brien does the difficult task of keeping a good deal of dialogue consistently gripping. Moody music underscoring these scenes helps sustain a tension that keeps the suspense at a peak. In close-up, Aaron’s eye contact with Frederic is unnerving, as if that unwavering stare itself is an accusation and an indictment. If Aaron is something other than human, his embodiment as a young man takes a note from earlier films such as Angel Heart and It’s a Wonderful Life, in which characters are metaphors representing evil and good. But O’Brien cleverly keeps this vague until quite late in the picture, keeping us guessing and drawing us further into the intrigue he artfully creates.
With its strong reliance on dialogue, it could be argued that The Righteous would work better as a play, but there are enough cinematic elements to justify the use of the medium. The film was shot in stark black and white, providing an eeriness that pervades the story. The location—an undefined place in what appears to be the middle of nowhere—adds to the strangeness of the piece. Flashbacks are used occasionally to provide insights not known to Frederic. Czerny’s craggy face, seen often in close-up, captures the former priest’s inner turmoil with subtle explicitness. And cinematographer Scott McClellan enhances the atmosphere with pools of shadow and spectral lighting.
The Righteous was captured digitally by director of photography Scott McClellan in black and white and presented in the widescreen aspect ratio of 2.39:1. Arrow Video’s Blu-ray presentation is sourced from a high definition master (with no other information provided). The visual quality is exceptional, with highly atmospheric lighting, an eerie remote location, and a claustrophobic feel. Compositions are thoughtful, with the widescreen compensating for the many interior scenes. Clarity is outstanding and various textures are evident, such as Frederic’s expressive face, the woods surrounding the lone house, the somber funeral of the couple’s young daughter, and shadows playing on walls. Blacks are deep, rich, and velvety while not sacrificing detail.
The soundtrack is English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. An alternate soundtrack option is English 2.0 LPCM. Optional English SDH subtitles are available. Dialogue dominates the film, and it’s clear and distinct throughout. Andrew Staniland’s dread-filled score, heard under most of the dialogue, is instrumental in maintaining a foreboding, insistent quality. Director Mark O’Brien refrains from typical thriller film sound tropes, such as jump scares, relying instead on building suspense. Audible effects include sounds of nature and two unsettling cries in the night when Frederic leaves the house to investigate.
The Righteous on Blu-ray sits in a clear amaray case with a 20-page insert booklet containing stills from the film, cast and crew information, the essay Washed in the Blood: Spirituality in the Modern Horror Film by Sean Hogan, statements from the director and the producer, transfer information, and a set of production credits. A reversible insert is included which features new artwork by Grant Boland and Oink Creative. Everything is housed in a limited slipcover featuring one of these artworks. The following bonus materials are included on the disc, all in HD:
- Audio Commentary by Mark O’Brien and K. Spencer Jones
- Mark O’Brien Interview (33:47)
- Henry Czerny Interview (17:08)
- Mimi Kuzyk & Kate Corbett Interview (17:17)
- K. Spencer Jones, Editor (11:04)
- Scott McClellan, Cinematographer (10:02)
- Jason Clarke, Production Designer (9:26)
- Grimmfest Q&A with Mark O’Brien (19:36)
- Fantasia 2021 Stage Presentation and Q&A (32:35)
- Radio Silence Roundtable (73:00)
- Theatrical Trailer (1:54)
- Original Soundtrack & Stills (65:17)
Writer/director/actor Mark O’Brien and editor K. Spencer Jones have a leisurely discussion mostly about what we’re seeing on screen, without consequential information about the actors, scenes, or filming. A far more informative discussion of the making of The Righteous is contained in the thorough interviews of key filmmakers. The commentary contains long stretches in which O’Brien and Jones don’t speak at all, perhaps more involved in watching the film than in providing information. This is an example of commentators “winging it.” A well-prepared commentary is valuable. This one is not.
Mark O’Brien Interview – O’Brien discusses the genesis and plot of The Righteous and comments on directing and acting in the same film. The idea came to him when he had his own child. O’Brien describes the character of Aaron and why he chose to play him rather than audition other actors. He discusses influences on his performance, the casting and rehearsal processes, assembling key crew members, and the importance of Newfoundland as the location. He talks about the film’s themes, his choice to make the film in black and white, and the challenges of multi-tasking. One of his anecdotes deals with weather and his concern about snow.
Henry Czerny Interview – Czerny explains that the film is about how belief informs reality. He talks about what attracted him to the role of Frederic, how he first met Mark O’Brien, and the personal experiences he drew upon to play Frederic. He notes the short shooting schedule and how impressed he was working for a first-time director. He believes the film has a timelessness.
Mimi Kuzyk & Kate Corbett Interview – The two women discuss how they became involved in The Righteous and their working relationship with O’Brien and Henry Czerny. They also offer their thoughts on working in Newfoundland and their reactions to seeing the finished film.
K. Spencer Jones, Editor – Jones says he approached the film as an allegory. He describes his background, which includes working with Mark O’Brien on a few short films. He notes his influence on the final cut, working together with O’Brien in the editing room, and the significance of Newfoundland in terms of mood. He also describes his favorite scenes. He’s proud of the film and wants it to reach a wide audience.
Scott McClellan, Cinematographer – The Righteous was McClellan’s first black and white film. With black and white, you have to think in terms of tones and textures. He refers to O’Brien as an excellent collaborator and makes a point of how important the Newfoundland location was to the look of the film. He talks about his biggest takeaway from working on the film.
Jason Clarke, Production Designer – Clark explains that designing for black and white is all about dealing with shades of grey and contrast. He felt that the script was written with black and white in mind, discusses the house used in the film, relates his inspirations and influences, and talks about his working relationship with O’Brien.
Grimmfest Q&A with Mark O’Brien – This live-streamed session is from the UK premiere of the film on October 10, 2021.
Fantasia 2021 Stage Presentation and Q&A – The director and star of The Righteous are introduced at the world premiere in Montreal on August 15, 2021.
Radio Silence Roundtable – This is a freewheeling discussion about horror films and their appeal with director Mark O’Brien and his friends Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett, and Chad Villella. They also discuss the writing process and how The Righteous project got underway.
Theatrical Trailer – In several quick, stark black and white images, the trailer atmospherically establishes a foreboding tale without revealing key information. The film’s eerie score is heard throughout. A few favorable critics’ quotes are interspersed with the images.
Original Soundtrack & Stills – The brooding, atmospheric soundtrack by Andrew Staniland is played under a slideshow of black and white stills from the film.
Despite its small budget, The Righteous boasts impressive production values, with its anxiety-inducing monochromatic images amplifying Frederic’s spiritual and physical isolation. It takes its time getting into the plot. Since the trailer suggests that it’s a horror film, this unhurried pace is initially a letdown. Those who expect excessive bloodshed, violence, and monsters will be disappointed. The film deals with the psychological effects of past actions on the present as it examines the long-range effects of sin and a man’s desperate desire for redemption. By the end of the film, it’s the viewer who must decide whether Frederic has been relieved of his burden.
- Dennis Seuling