Writer/director Keith Thomas makes a solidly creepy feature film debut with The Vigil, set in the cloistered, insular world of Hasidic Judaism in Brooklyn. Jakov (Dave Davis) has recently left the community to pursue a life in the secular world, and after leaving dinner with friends one night, he happens to bump into his former rabbi, Reb Shulem (Menashe Lustig, who starred in 2017’s moving drama set in the same community, Menashe). Reb Shulem is in need of help; namely, he’s looking for a Shomer to sit vigil over the body of a recently deceased community member. The practice, called Shemira, is a kindness within the Hasidic community where one’s body and soul is looked after and never left alone after death but before burial.
Hard up for cash, Jakov agrees to be Shomer for a few hundred bucks, thinking he can skate through the night on his phone or otherwise be distracted until sunrise; when Reb Shulem off-handedly comments that the previous Shomer “ran off,” Jakov chooses to brush it off even as it raises an eyebrow for those of us watching what’s about to unfold. Jakov arrives at the Litvak home, where Mrs. Litvak (the great character actress Lynn Cohen), frail and small in the dark, dilapidated old home she shared with her late husband, at first isn’t keen to have this strange young man perform this sacred ritual. But without any other options, and with Jakov’s assurance that he’ll do his best, she acquiesces, leaving him alone in the home’s main room with her husband’s body cloaked under a white sheet.
And at first, Jakov’s evening goes about as he’d planned. He’s struggling to fit in with the secular world, so he starts looking up “How to Speak to Women” articles online, anything to pass what’s sure to be a long night. If that were the extent of the action here, there wouldn’t be much more to say. But soon, Thomas begins to introduce the unpredictable; in the film’s 90-minute run-time, it’s never quite clear exactly what kind of thriller we’re dealing with, and that appears to be by choice. At first, it’s odd and inexplicable noises that draw Jakov to different parts of the house. A few good jump scares put us on the edge of our seats as we get glimpses of something haunting the Litvak home, but it’s kept just out of our sight—and Jakov’s.
It’s no small feat to create a compelling, engaging (not to mention scary) narrative that takes place essentially in a single room, but Thomas finds interesting ways to keep Jakov interesting, from introducing text conversations with a friend to granting us insights into his own struggles with mental illness (an exchange involving his doctor, who calls Jakov back after he leaves him a frantic voicemail, is particularly creepy). In an apparent attempt to add some depth to Jakov’s journey, the film spends some time in flashbacks that reveal some deeper traumas he has yet to come to terms with. In the film’s freakiest moments, Jakov is as surprised as we are to see what’s doing the scaring.
By the time the sun rises after Jakov’s trying night as Shomer, we’re as relieved as he is to see the light of day. At just 90 minutes, The Vigil is a tight and effective horror film that more than entertains as it explores Jakov’s ties to his community and what it means to walk away from it all. That it will also have you looking behind doors and turning on extra lights once night falls is, if you’re into that sort of thing, a bonus.
The Vigil is now playing in select theaters, including the Music Box Theatre.
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