Be careful what you wish for. But be certain what you pray for.
When Frederic Mason (Henry Czerny) is asked whether God or the Devil scares him more, his response is swift. No matter how much damage Satan may inflict, only God can supply salvation and take it away to leave you knowing what you lost. It’s the shame from acknowledging your pain is the result of your own actions rather than a fallen angel that hurts most. And Frederic won’t allow himself to risk it again. He did once before and has since tried to make amends by devoting his life back to the church and the wife (Mimi Kuzyk‘s Ethel) who would eventually see him leave the clergy. No matter how much he loves both, however, that past guilt never dissipates. So, he prays for punishment and long-coveted release.
God answers in Mark O’Brien‘s feature debut as writer/director, The Righteous. He answers with a test that begins with the untimely death of Frederic and Ethel’s young daughter Joanie. The black and white imagery of Frederic begging for forgiveness replaces the title screen before O’Brien provides a heartbreaking response in the form of a tiny coffin. Is it therefore coincidence or fate? Did God hear him and comply by taking away that which he ultimately loved most in this world? Or does his unwavering shame simply project itself upon this fresh grief to make it appear that way? He cannot know for certain as he doesn’t know God’s voice. All he knows is his faith and that Joanie paid the price for his and, by extension, mankind’s salvation.
Before he can rest easy, however, a stranger (O’Brien’s Aaron Smith) arrives in the middle of the night. He’s hurt, lost, and hungry with nowhere to go. Ethel is cautious, but Frederic’s charity gets the best of him when offering a place to stay. It almost seems too perfect a union once they come around to his presence enough to forget that he had a destination before stumbling into their backyard. Just when they lost a child, here comes someone they can care for instead. Aaron becomes a surrogate of sorts that shields Ethel from her suffering at the same time as he allows it to fester in Frederic. Because while she’s enjoying their guest’s warm smile, he receives a proposition that goes against everything he believes in.
The first half of the film can drag because of how long this proposition is held back. We get a lot of exposition in the meantime courtesy of a family friend’s (Kate Corbett‘s Doris) anxious exuberance and a couple of conversations between Aaron and Frederic wherein the former draws out the latter’s past by sharing glimpses into his own. We’re therefore left wondering what this stranger’s role is in the bigger picture. We also must wonder how much of his presence is real considering we’re told Frederic suffers from memory and time lapses (the absence of manifesting any examples of these “spells” cause us to question everything in lieu of definitive proof that may never come). Where then does Aaron end and the symptoms of Frederic’s fear begin?
It’s this question that rules the fantastic second half of The Righteous in a way that renders it as taut a thriller as you can conceive. Where the initial forty-five minutes felt like a leisurely walk through these people’s lives and insecurities, the last forty-five unfold at breakneck speed courtesy of an impossible choice Frederic can’t fathom making. Without getting into too much detail, I’ll just say it has to do with mortal sin. If the Devil were the one asking, Frederic could easily just say no and suffer the consequences. If it were God, however, the stakes become much higher because this crime has the potential of erasing that sin he committed years ago. Where Satan revels in the temptation, God judges with dire consequences.
Why? Because Frederic was a man of the cloth who fervently believes in everything Catholicism teaches. Someone like him committing the sin he’s asked to commit would be the undoing of existence itself. And relieving his pain isn’t worth that. But what if the messenger is willing to go further? What if this person is willing to harm Ethel regardless of whether God or the Devil is pulling the strings? It’s a choice he’s been forced to make before. He chose lust over restraint way back when and romantic love over spiritual love to marry his wife. Here then is his third chance. Choose God by not doing what he’s been asked and risk watching his world fall apart. Or choose his family and risk everything falling apart.
It’s a difficult decision made worse by the messenger’s cold and calculating delivery. And it only works if you also believe, like Frederic does, that God is infinitely more frightening than Satan. Because Him being behind this nightmarish ordeal means anything is possible. If He is willing to kill everyone just to prove a point to one man who continuously loses his battle against earthly desires, then everything we see on-screen that’s usually relegated to demonic possession is rendered so much more sinister. O’Brien is very judicious in how often he wields these tropes so that their impact can be felt in full. What we receive is thus the terror of a man of faith falling prey to fear and uncertainty to conjure a punishment beyond one’s imagination.
Czerny and O’Brien go toe-to-toe more than once courtesy of lengthy arguments that get into the bones of religion and the darkness contained within. Whether these confrontations are real or not doesn’t matter in the long run because they are and will always be real to Frederic. The script shouldn’t therefore waste its time explaining. It doesn’t need to repeat scenes from a different perspective so that we can see a different truth. Reality doesn’t factor in when you’re talking about faith anyway. Seeing God is insanity. Guilt and grief are powerful enough to move mountains. Frederic’s reckoning commences from a perfect storm of conviction and self-preservation. The moment he “lets” his prayer be answered is the moment his fate is sealed. There’s no turning back.
courtesy of the Fantasia International Film Festival