The Righteous Review: An Unsettling, Beautiful Triumph

Ready or Not cast members Henry Czerny and Mark O'Brien reunite to tell a story of faith, sin, and punishment in O'Brien's directorial feature film debut. This review of The Righteous will go over why horror fans need to watch this gorgeous and chilling black-and-white production, even if slow burn horror isn't usually for you.

The Righteous Review An Unsettling, Beautiful TriumphThe Righteous managed to keep my attention its entire runtime, despite its very, very slow pacing. Sublime cinematography, beautiful use of its black-and-white picture, and incredible acting from all involved make this an independent production to pay attention to.

However, these slow, introspective stories aren’t the type of horror some are after in their movies. So, I’ll go over all that worked and all that didn’t in The Righteous during this review. This is also a spoiler-free The Righteous review, so you can keep reading whether you’ve seen the movie or not!

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The Righteous releases June 10 on Arrow in the US, UK, and Ireland.

The Righteous Official Trailer | ARROW

Story – Be careful what you pray for

Summing up the story in The Righteous makes it sound a bit dull. However, it’s actually a riveting mini-mystery that morphs into something entirely different about halfway through its roughly ninety-minute runtime.

The movie starts with the funeral of the young daughter of ex-priest Frederic (Henry Czerny) and his wife Ethel (Mimi Kuzyk). It’s not long before a strange man claiming to be called Aaron Smith (Mark O’Brien) stumbles into the couple’s shattered life. His arrival sparks Frederic to question his standing with God, the semantics of sin and punishment, and the devastating difference between wishing for something–and praying for it.

Inevitably, this leads to a lot of talking in The Righteous, and not much else. It might be a dealbreaker to some, but the conversations? They’re more riveting than most by-the-numbers action flicks out there. It’s a seriously impressive feat from writer, director, and star Mark O’Brien. No dialogue feels wasted, especially after Aaron’s arrival. The mystery surrounding him is why I initially found the story so compelling, yet I was just as hooked (if not more) after the movie’s initial mystery was revealed.

Frederic during one of his many conversations.

Frederic during one of his many conversations.

But wait–there’s more! While there is very little I would call ‘action’ in O’Brien’s movie, apart from one scene in the third act, there are three or four moments that make The Righteous‘ horror classification make sense. Some of these moments are truly chilling, and made me feel more on edge than even the most blatant horror flicks out there. These brief, anxious moments reminded me most of a mix between It Follows and Saint Maud. That intense feeling from a sudden chase scene injected into the low-key horror of everyday life. Some of these moments last mere seconds, but leave a much longer impression.

Unfortunately, the third act’s build-up isn’t executed as well as it could have been, and feels a bit jarring compared to the slow, pondering scenes present in the rest of the movie. Yet, it’s just a small section, and the only part I didn’t feel fully invested in. I can’t name many movies with only one underwhelming story beat. Even with this weak third act, the closing moments make for some cosmic horror that’s both unnerving, and just a tiny bit funny.

Characters & Performances – Three Hail Marys

Every actor in The Righteous puts in a sublime performance. Henry Czerny takes the lead as ex-priest Frederic. Czerny portrays the character’s inner conflicts well, whether arguing about religious semantics, or mulling something over in silence. I wouldn’t say that I liked Frederic by the end of the movie, but I certainly found him and his faith intriguing.

The similarities and contrasts portrayed between how Frederic and his wife, Ethel, are handling the death of their daughter is basically the throughline of the film. So it’s great that Mimi Kuzyk does such a fantastic job getting all these complicated elements of her character across, even with the least amount of screentime out of the three stars.

Mark O'Brien is phenomenal as the mysterious Aaron.

Mark O’Brien is phenomenal as the mysterious Aaron.

Which brings us to the mysterious stranger, Aaron Smith. Much like the story and pacing of The Righteous, Mark O’Brien’s performance is also a slow burn–and it’s glorious. I could not take my eyes off him the entire time Aaron was on screen. It’s an incredibly mesmerizing performance that I wasn’t expecting from the Ready or Not star. Much like Czerny, O’Brien excels in both dialogue-heavy scenes and lingering, silent shots. He can also switch between sympathetic and chilling with a scary amount of ease.

In case you couldn’t tell already, I loved the movie. There’s so much to praise, and yet Mark O’Brien’s performance as Aaron is still my favourite part of the whole production. He’s that good.

Editing & Pacing – Slow, but purposeful

As mentioned above, The Righteous is a slow burn. This makes for a sluggish pace, yes, but I never felt like any moment was wasted. In fact, it was almost jarring when the third act injected a bit of urgency. If you don’t like movies like this, I’d still encourage you to check O’Brien’s film out, but understand if all the waffle and lingering shots might put you off giving it a watch.

There’s an unsettling tone established pretty much from the beginning of the film. One of the ways this atmosphere is maintained is through skillful editing. I never felt at ease, as shots would just cut to a scene later on in the story. There’s even a small plot reason this happens, but that just feels like a bonus, as the actual transitions are so well done on their own. The film is great at starting the scene with little urgency, ramping the tension to a ten, and then cutting to another just when you’re wondering what could possibly come next.

Big Damien vibes here.

Big Damien vibes here.

Cinematography & Sound – Stunning, stage play style

Mark O’Brien’s acting is my favourite aspect of The Righteous, and his and cinematographer Scott McClellan’s expert direction of their black-and-white picture is a very close second. The movie looks so, so beautiful. It would be understandable if the scenery became boring, as Frederic and Ethel’s house is where most of the 90-minute runtime takes place–but it never does. New and interesting shots await audiences throughout. When angles and setups are reused, they portray something meaningful about the scene they’re capturing. The lighting used on Frederic during Aaron’s introduction is a personal favourite shot of mine, and it’s just one of many beautiful scenes.

The whole construction of the movie feels closer to a stage play than a horror film. Such as when Aaron tells one of his stories and the lighting changes, focusing solely on him to striking effect. Even the practical and special effects seem like some trickery you’d see in a play. I personally don’t think this would be as effective with a ‘normal’ picture colouring, making the black-and-white tones an integral part of the film. Aaron Elliot, the movie’s colourist, also deserves credit for helping achieve this beautiful look.

Similar to the editing, the soundtrack is another way the film produces horror elements. Even during quiet conversations the music swells, creating an uncomfortable tension that feels like something bad is always about to happen. This escalates as the story moves on and comes to a brilliant head during the closing moments of the movie. The soundtrack is yet another great part that makes up the gorgeous and unsettling world established in The Righteous.

The Righteous is a stunning movie with light horror elements found in small, chilling scenes reminiscent of a stage play. Mark O'Brien marks his feature film directing debut with beauty and intelligence, while also scripting an interesting story, and contributing one hell of a performance. Henry Czerny and Mimi Kuzyk also help carry the weight of this ambitious exploration of faith, sin, and punishment.
  • Mark O'Brien excels as an actor, writer, and director
  • Stunning black-and-white picture
  • Horror lies in small chills, not big scares
  • Engaging story
  • Atmospheric score
  • Third act feels weak

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