The Righteous Review: A Disturbing and Beautiful Triumph
The Just managed to keep my attention for its entire runtime, despite its very, very slow pace. Sublime cinematography, beautiful use of its black-and-white image, and incredible acting from everyone involved make this an indie production worth paying attention to.
However, these slow, introspective stories aren’t the kind of horror that some are looking for in their movies. So I’ll go over everything that worked and everything that didn’t The Just during this review. It’s also a spoiler-free The Just review, so you can keep reading whether you’ve seen the movie or not!
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The Just releases June 10 on Arrow in the United States, United Kingdom and Ireland.
History – Be careful what you pray for
Summarizing the story in The Just makes the sound a little dull. However, it is actually a fascinating mini-mystery which turns into something completely different halfway through its roughly ninety-minute runtime.
The film begins 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 Aaron Smith (Mark O’Brien) stumbles into the couple’s shattered lives. Her arrival prompts Frederick to question his position vis-à-vis 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 discussion in The Just, and not much else. That might be a dealbreaker for some, but Conversations? They are more captivating than most action movies in numbers. It’s a truly impressive feat from writer, director and star Mark O’Brien. None of the dialogue feels lost, especially after Aaron’s arrival. The mystery surrounding it is why I initially found the story so compelling, but I was just as hooked (if not more so) after the film’s initial mystery was revealed.
But wait, there’s more! Although there is very little that I would call “action” in O’Brien’s film, other than a scene in the third act, there are three or four moments that make The Just‘ Classification of horrors makes sense. Some of these moments are truly chilling and made me feel more nervous than even the most blatant horror movies. Those brief anxious moments mostly reminded me of a mix between It follows and Sainte Maud. That intense feeling of a sudden hunting scene injected into the understated horror of everyday life. Some of these moments only last a few seconds, but leave a much longer impression.
Unfortunately, the construction of the third act is not executed as well as it could have been and seems a little shocking compared to the slow and meditative scenes present in the rest of the film. Still, that’s just a small section, and the one part I didn’t feel fully invested in. I can’t name many movies with just one disappointing story beat. Even with this weak third act, the final moments create a cosmic horror that is both unnerving and a little funny.
Characters and Performances – Three Hail Marys
Each actor of The Just delivers sublime performance. Henry Czerny takes the lead as ex-priest Frederic. Czerny portrays the character’s inner conflicts well, whether it’s arguing over religious semantics or pondering something in silence. I wouldn’t say I liked Frederic at the end of the film, but I certainly found him and his faith intriguing.
The similarities and contrasts portrayed between the way Frederic and his wife, Ethel, deal with the death of their daughter are essentially the guiding thread of the film. So it’s great that Mimi Kuzyk does such a fantastic job of getting all of these complicated elements of her character through, even with the least amount of screen time among the three stars.
Which brings us to the mysterious stranger, Aaron Smith. Just like the story and the rhythm of The Just, Mark O’Brien’s performance is also a slow burn – and it’s glorious. I couldn’t take my eyes off him the entire time Aaron was on screen. It’s unbelievably fascinating performances that I didn’t expect from Ready or Not star. Much like Czerny, O’Brien excels in both dialogue-heavy scenes and quiet, lingering shots. He can also switch between sympathetic and cold with frightening ease.
In case you didn’t already know, I loved the movie. There’s so much to praise, and yet Mark O’Brien’s performance as Aaron is still my favorite part of the whole production. He is so good.
Editing and Rhythm – Slow, but Helpful
As mentioned above, The Just is a slow burn. It makes a slow pace, yes, but I never felt like a moment was wasted. In fact, it was almost shocking when the third act injected some urgency. If you don’t like movies like this, I still encourage you to watch O’Brien’s movie, but understand if all the waffles and lingering shots might put you off watching it.
There’s an unsettling tone established pretty much from the start of the film. One of the ways to maintain this atmosphere is through skillful editing. I never felt comfortable as the shots only cut a scene later in the story. There’s even a little plotline why this happens, but that feels like a bonus, because the actual transitions are done so well on their own. The film is excellent for starting the scene with little urgency, building the tension to ten, then moving on to another just when you wonder what might happen next.
Cinematography and Sound – Stunning scenic acting style
Mark O’Brien’s acting is my favorite aspect of The Just, and his expert direction and that of cinematographer Scott McClellan for their black-and-white image are very close. The film looks so, so beautiful. It would be understandable if the scenery got boring, as Frederic and Ethel’s house is where most of the 90-minute runtime takes place – but it never does. Exciting new shots await audiences throughout. When angles and configurations are reused, they portray something meaningful about the scene they capture. The lighting used on Frederic during Aaron’s introduction is one of my favorite shots, and it’s just one of many beautiful scenes.
The whole construction of the movie feels more like a play than a horror movie. Like when Aaron tells one of his stories and the lighting changes, focusing only on him to startling effect. Even the practical and special effects seem like a trick you’d see in a play. Personally, I don’t think it would be as effective with “normal” coloring of the image, making black and white tones an integral part of the film. Aaron Elliot, the film’s colorist, also deserves credit for helping achieve this beautiful look.
Similar to editing, the soundtrack is another way the film produces horror elements. Even during quiet conversations, the music swells, creating an uncomfortable tension that makes it seem like something bad is always about to happen. This intensifies as the story progresses and comes to a head during the final moments of the film. The soundtrack is another big part that makes up the beautiful and unsettling world set in The Just.