REVIEW: The Vigil [2021]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 89 minutes
    Release Date: February 26th, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: IFC Midnight
    Director(s): Keith Thomas
    Writer(s): Keith Thomas

It wants your pain.

After spending his entire life within the Orthodox Jewish community, Yakov Ronen (Dave Davis) recently decided to leave its insular environment and make his way amongst the freer and more modern society away from its borders. It’s hardly an easy transition, though, when you consider how little he and his fellow defectors know about the world they’re entering. Yakov himself can’t stop marveling about his new smartphone because it has a flashlight let alone access to the internet, so it’s no surprise that he’d fail to secure a job after providing a hand-written resumé thanks to his ignorance towards how such things should be handled. So his struggles compound. Inexperience keeps him poor. Poverty keeps him hungry. And he wonders if he made the right decision.

Those who know what he’s going through understand this crisis of faith. Those who’ve escaped try to remind Yakov and the others that they’re in the midst of a process with an as yet undetermined destination. The ones who’ve witnessed that escape linger in the hopes of exploiting this uncertainty to coax them back into the fold. It therefore makes sense that we would meet Yakov just as he’s being pulled in both directions: Sarah (Malky Goldman) suggests they meet for coffee the next day (he’s never been on a date before) and Reb Shulem (Menashe Lustig) asks him for a favor that may include the added “benefit” of bringing Orthodox Judaism into clearer focus. The former is what he wants, but the latter is what he needs.

As The Vigil writer/director Keith Thomas quickly reveals, however, religion isn’t what’s needed. No, Yakov simply can’t say no to an offer for compensation. Shulem is asking that he do what he’s done many times before: sit as a hired shomer to watch over the recently deceased Mr. Litvak until the body can be collected. Litvak had become a recluse of late whose children had all left and whose wife (Lynn Cohen) was currently suffering from Alzheimer’s. So for a few hundred dollars, Yakov would just have to sit and read scripture for five hours while Mrs. Litvak slept. He’d serve as the dead’s guardian, protecting the body from any issues that may arise before it can be readied for burial. Then he can prepare for his date.

While this vigil is innocuous enough, the circumstances aren’t. Shulem sought Yakov’s help because the first shomer he hired quit on account of being afraid. Of what, no one could say. But this unknown person isn’t alone in his reservations. Mrs. Litvak worries too. She yells at Shulem the moment she sees Yakov that he can’t be the one. She implores him to find another shomer without explaining why. Maybe it’s the dementia or maybe it’s something else. Does she know about the reasons why Yakov left the community? Does she sense that he’s a broken soul suffering from PTSD after a tragic accident for which he’s unable to free himself of guilt? It’s a pain her late husband possessed too after all. It’s an opening for evil.

Enter the Mazzik: an invisible demon written about in the Talmud as a force under God’s control to dole out punishment. As this is a horror film steeped in the aesthetic of contemporary monsters and malice, however, Thomas takes liberties to make his Mazzik an autonomous creature “always looking back,” with head turned, who feeds on suffering by latching onto a soul and never letting go. It forces those in its proximity to relive the memories of those it controls and thus pulls Yakov down into a nightmarish descent of unfamiliar imagery that ultimately conjures glimpses of his own past too. Will he be strong enough to face his demons and vanquish this ghoul? Or will he allow it to become his curse as though dictated by destiny?

This fight takes place in one setting and lasts around seventy-minutes or so after some opening exposition during one of Yakov’s meetings with fellow defectors. From midnight to five in the morning it’s just him and the Litvaks in the dark. The lights flicker, the house creaks, and figures can be seen in the shadows before enough time elapses to tether Yakov to both the house and this spirit. It’s moody on its own thanks to flashbacks that reveal a little more detail with each subsequent appearance, but Thomas does well to complement things with a few effective jump scares and slow-moving supernatural horrors. Sometimes it’s imagined. Sometimes it’s Mrs. Litvak. And sometimes it’s Yakov himself—the feelings that have consumed him manifesting into physical being.

With an involving sound design (I’m unsure if it’s been adjusted since debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019, but I didn’t feel it was too loud or overly abrasive like many accounts I’ve read—maybe the bone cracking was too much for them?) and creepy practical effects, there’s a lot to like with The Vigil on a purely sensory level. Where I found the film most memorable, however, was its ability to bring very specific lore into the mainstream by explaining and utilizing it in a universally resonant way. Because once we understand the reasons why a Mazzik would gravitate towards Mr. Litvak and Yakov, we’re able to look back on our own lives at the trauma we too struggle to keep from taking control.

It’s Davis’ show as a result since he’s both enduring the horrors in the present and coping with the horrors of the past (although Cohen also shines in support). That’s not just the Mazzik either since Yakov’s trepidation in the face of hanging out with Sarah is equally palpable as illustrated by his expressive reactions to text messages. He’s desperate to move forward and believes walking out of the shadow of orthodoxy is the best way since its vacuum is a large part of why what happened did. But it’s not enough to simply change one’s surroundings or numb oneself with medication. We can’t just forget what haunts our soul. Yakov must confront his truth to recognize the monster’s face looking back at him is invariably his own.

[1] Dave Davis as ‘Yakov Ronen’ in Keith Thomas’ THE VIGIL. Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight Release.
[2] Lynn Cohen as ‘Mrs. Litvak’ in Keith Thomas’ THE VIGIL. Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight Release.
[3] Keith Thomas’ THE VIGIL. Courtesy of IFC Midnight. An IFC Midnight Release.

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