[Fantasia Review] “The Righteous” is a slow-burning religious thriller that will slip under your skin
Structured like a play and filmed in inky black and white, the actor Mark O’Briendirector’s first feature film The Just is a dialogue examination of mourning, responsibility and penance.
The film follows Frédéric Mason (Henri czerny), a former priest who left the brotherhood to marry Ethel (Mimi Kuzyk) and raise a baby girl. Ethel is devout and stoic, and their late marriage seems both rock solid and subject to impending collapse at the same time.
The Just opens in the aftermath of a tragedy: the couple’s young daughter has died, although details of her death are not revealed until later. O’Brien’s storyline regularly withholds information, handing out relevant details slowly and organically as the film progresses. This has the effect of turning the film into a sort of treasure hunt, especially in the first act as relationships and events come together through awkward conversations and silences. It was only in discussion with the former priest colleague of Frédéric Graham (Nigel bennett) and Doris (Kate corbett), a battered and grieving young woman who shows up to pay her respects, as the details begin to emerge.
However, this is only a preparation for the appearance of a mysterious young man (O’Brien) in the middle of the night. His face is obscured in the shadows, his foot is mysteriously injured, and he avoids answering the most routine questions. Despite the strong potential threat of violence or vandalism (and against Ethel’s protests), Frédéric lets the man in, then begins to lie to the police (Mayko Nguyen) when she shows up to investigate.
From now on, The Just becomes a verbal battle of wills. There is never any doubt that there is more abroad than it seems: not only is the truth of his connection to Frederick the main mystery of the film, but he seems to oscillate between two distinct personalities. . Half the time the young man is innocent, naive and hurt; the rest of the time he is acerbic, accusatory, and prone to making declarative statements.
This last element is particularly important given Frederick’s lost faith following the untimely death of his daughter. The way Aaron Smith (as he’s ultimately named) refutes, pontificates, and even sermons with all the evangelical swagger of a Sunday sermon is key. Aaron clearly knows how to harness language in a way Frederick is sure to listen to. In the process, Aaron also embodies all that Frederick was and has lost.
It’s a personal, intimate, religious tête-à-tête, but despite the small scale, the stakes are high (after all, a man’s soul is at stake). The battle of wills, captured in a series of tense and laconic conversations over a few days, is visually magnified by the harshness of the black and white staging. It’s a bold, creative move from O’Brien, especially since the biblical overtones and monochromatic color palette immediately invite comparisons to Charles Laughton’s 1955 American classic, the hunter’s night.
In the case of The Just, this is not a problem. He’s also engaged in thorny moral and philosophical debates, especially when the film finishes unraveling mysteries and forces audiences to sit in the uncomfortable realities of who (or what) these characters are. It’s powerful and emotionally draining stuff, amplified by the solid performances of the three protagonists, but most notably by O’Brien, who does a revealing job.
It doesn’t hurt that O’Brien has the juiciest role in the movie. The role of Aaron requires a delicate balance between loud and threatening, calm and reserved (the character is prone to sudden mood swings). A prime example is how Ethel starts the movie scared of him, but only a few hours later Aaron befriended her completely to the point that they sing and make pancakes together. In O’Brien’s hands, Aaron is a con artist who loves to challenge and confront his hosts, and he takes extreme pleasure in surprising the former priest in lies and puns as the film progresses. .
The revelation of who Aaron is and why he’s come to upset Frederick right now is complicated, but not unexpected. The Just is less interested in shocking his audiences than in exploring what happens when these men revise their notion of fate, come to terms with their pasts, and pay the price for their sins. It’s cloudy and captivating, slow and methodical. Then everything is linked in a flash of violence and a surprisingly divine final plan.
The Just isn’t a loud, bombastic film, but it slips under the skin and nestles in the mind. If that’s what O’Brien can deliver on the first try, I can’t wait to see what he cooks up next.