The Righteous. 2021. Directed & Written by Mark O’Brien.
Starring Henry Czerny, Mimi Kuzyk, Mark O’Brien, Mayko Nguyen, & Kate Corbett.
Not Rated / 97 minutes
Drama / Horror / Mystery / Thriller
★★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
DISCLAIMER: The following essay contains SIGNIFICANT SPOILERS!
Turn back, or be forever spoiled.
When I write about films made and/or written by people from Newfoundland and Labrador I always have to preface whatever I write by saying there’s a certain amount of bias involved. I’m a Newfoundlander, and people from the province don’t always hit it big, though the island is filled to the brim—or chinched, as we say here—with talent. When someone from here shows up in big films and television shows, like Mark O’Brien, I always like to give praise where praise is due, but sometimes the love of my province takes over my subjective reflection, perhaps a tad too much. Still, it’s hard for me to not love O’Brien’s debut feature as director and writer, The Righteous—a tale of one man being forced to reckon with not only his own dark past and the sins he committed but also the sinful past, and present, of the Catholic Church.
O’Brien’s film centres on Frederic Mason (Henry Czerny) and his wife Ethel (Mimi Kuzyk). The couple are grappling with the death of their daughter. We discover Frederic used to be a priest. He left the church to begin a family, making the tragedy of losing a child that much worse. One day, Frederic watches an injured man stumble onto their property. He takes the man inside hesitantly. The injured guest introduces himself as Aaron Smith (Mark O’Brien). Frederic’s intent on helping Aaron, but the more the two spend time together the more Frederic begins to wonder who Aaron really is and why he’s actually there. All of a sudden the visitor’s presence feels sinister, as Frederic and Ethel welcome Aaron deeper into their home and lives.
There’s touching tragedy in The Righteous, before revelations about Frederic alter our perception of what’s really happening to the Masons. We see Frederic and Ethel start to treat Aaron like he’s their own son, a figurative replacement for the daughter they’ve lost. One particularly emotional sequence in the film features Frederic deconstructing his daughter’s jungle gym, sitting in a swing defeated. He’s joined by Aaron; they swing together like a father and his little boy. Frederic eventually does deconstruct the entire thing and starts a fire with the remains, as if trying to purge the memory of his daughter. The whole idea of Aaron being a kind of gift to the Masons is excellently reflected in a dream Ethel recounts of once having, in which she saw Frederic walking out of a fog and being “exactly what I wanted, what I needed, at that precise moment.”
Yet in contrast to the idea of Aaron being a psychological replacement for Frederic and Ethel’s child is the way he talks about being born into a cold world. He goes on an anti-natalist rant, starting by saying: “My existence is a sin, Frederic.” He further explains how life went after he was birthed into a situation entirely out of his control, saying: “Imagine being born into a body that nobody wants and nobody asked for.” One of my areas of study as an academic is John Milton’s Paradise Lost and there are a couple aspects to O’Brien’s screenplay which feel reminiscent of Milton. Aaron’s anti-natalism echoes the way Satan feels about God after being rejected and tossed from Heaven into the depths of Hell, when Satan says: “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay / To mould me man? Did I solicit thee / From darkness to promote me?”
The Milton connections don’t stop with Aaron himself, extending to Frederic and his horrific past. In Paradise Lost, Milton draws out a metaphor when Satan rapes his daughter, Sin, who later gives birth to Death. A revelation about Frederic shocks us when we learn he assaulted a woman, resulting in the birth of a child. Though it’s not entirely a direct comparison, the Paradise Lost vibe is given more weight because of Aaron, the child Frederic helped birth through violence, who becomes both a figure of sin and death. Aaron tells Frederic at one point: “Sin has a life of its own.” We also witness him touch a flower, making it wilt. Aaron embodies sin and death at once to remind Henry of the past and also punish the former priest for it.
Aside from literary parallels, it’s hard to ignore the parallel of Frederic’s situation to many real life situations involving the Roman Catholic Church. Frederic is shown to be in close contact with other priests in the film, in spite of the fact he’s left the church in an official capacity. We get the sense he can come back any time he wants to, judging by a conversation he has with another priest. So, really what’s happened is the Church has allowed a priest who’s committed a nasty physical crime, like so many priests who’ve molested children, to move someplace else and begin anew, shuffling their problems to another area, a different parish. Frederic’s abuse of male and religious power acts as a microcosm of those larger abuses of the Catholic Church as a whole.
There’s an additional, haunting layer to the whole plot when we start to wonder if Doris (Kate Corbett)—a young woman close to the Masons, whom we find out was the birth mother of their daughter—has also suffered a similar fate as Aaron’s mother. As much concrete detail as we find out in The Righteous there are things left unspoken, or not wholly verbalised, that linger with us after the film’s over.
A major part of why The Righteous is so haunting, to me, is because the performances feel natural, so the agony of the story and its plot sinks in slow until you’re caught in all its dread. Czerny and Kuzyk draw the viewer into the film’s heavy atmosphere of grief. It’s O’Brien, pulling double duty behind and in front of the camera, whose performance truly pushes the film into a dark, unsettling space. He looks younger than he is, in most roles, and that allows him the ability to give off a sense of innocence. O’Brien also channels a creepy energy that gradually starts to tear down that innocence, eventually making his character Aaron deeply sinister the longer he’s onscreen.
The Righteous is a stunning debut from O’Brien as director and writer. Best of all, the story’s various themes make for a rich cinematic text. The film confronts religion and patriarchal power in the Catholic Church, and it likewise questions whether redemption for certain hideous acts is genuinely attainable. Even in the revelations about Frederic, combined with Aaron’s anti-natalist views, there are questions leading to a discussion about why abortion is a better option than bringing a child into the world with no parents to care for them. The point being that O’Brien’s The Righteous is a well of intriguing themes and ideas, all of which centre around the patriarchal abuses of men and church alike and what such violence births into this world.