When it comes to those who identify as Jewish, theirs is a life of constant reminders of threat, peril, and near-extinction several times over. Trying to explain holidays, for instance, to my eldest but still-quite-young son, is to find a way to articulate the celebration in a way he’ll understand. To him, with holidays like Easter and Christmas, it’s all about candy and presents. That’s what holidays are. Jewish holidays are, more often than not, a memorial of a near-ending. Hanukkah and Passover, if done right, are both joyous, however, underneath the relaxed vibe and good food are stories of survival. In this way, to be Jewish is to contemplate and process trauma on a generational scale, one which never ends as long as someone is practicing somewhere. Survival is the best revenge, living on to tell the stories and attempt to make the world somehow better in the remembrance. But there can be no healing without, first, pain. It’s here that first-time feature writer/director Keith Thomas beings his story, The Vigil, with a pain so great that it’s become a living cancer. I can recall countless tales of demons and devils throughout cinema history, but few focused on the Jewish perspective. Thomas’s tale is at once phantasmagorical and grounded, rooting his horror in the physical while taking advantage of the metaphysical.
Yakov Ronen (Dave Davis) is working on his transitions from being a member of the Hassidic community to being off the derech (a Yiddish term meaning “off the path from G-d”). Working with an organization like Footsteps that helps members establish themselves outside the Hassidim, Yakov is not alone on his journey to learn about the world he has long been separated from. Still new and struggling for work, Yakov accepts the job offered to him by his friend and former rabbi Reb Shulem (Menashe Lustig) to sit shomer for the recently deceased Mr. Litvak (Ronald Cohen). To sit shomer is to accompany a dead body in order to protect it physical and spiritually, something which Yakov has done numerous times. Soon after Yakov settles in for a simple five-hour shift, it turns into something dark and torturous, pushing Yakov to face his own personal trauma in a way that modern medicine cannot.
For those less familiar with Jewish customs or who come to The Vigil with more general horror expectations, there are no demons in our cultural the way they exist in others. In studying Kabbalah, a form of Jewish mysticism, I learned of one description for the Devil as the voice of dissent in your head. The red-horned fallen angel that most are familiar with doesn’t exist and there is no Hell; there is only your perception moving you toward or away from G-d. Demons themselves are considered “evil spirits” with their intent malicious but in keeping with the intent of G-d, making them something to accept more than battle. This may seem strange to those used to tales in which demons are tools of corruption to you away from purity. For those, The Vigil may appear as an odd, weak thing, filled with poorly utilized or half-conceived tropes. To those more familiar with the language and lore, The Vigil is terrifying and yet, strangely, empowering as well.
It may seem trite at first, that Thomas begins his tale in World War II where the audience is shown a terrible piece of violence. In a time when there are those screaming “You will not replace us!,” you’d may think it strange that Thomas goes back that far, but doing so enables what Yakov goes through to possess a different kind of weight and dread. It’s not about using the history, but about focusing on how that emotional trauma’s been gestating, feeding if you will, for decades off Mr. Litvak and finds, in Yakov, something fresher, but just as delicious. Through the narrative, Thomas never equates Yakov’s personal trauma to that of Litvak, though there is a suggestion of a shared metaphysical connection as the cause of both their respective pain is similar. By connecting, but not equating, Thomas allows both pains to exist simultaneously without making The Vigil focus on the Holocaust as a source of pain, but, instead, examine how grief and trauma without healing is like an anchor locked around ones neck: it doesn’t just drag you down, it brings anyone else who gets close.
To create the supernatural edge, Thomas appears to have adapted the term “mazzikin,” a Hebrew term meaning “those who harm,” to create the mazzik, a malevolent spirit that is searching for a new host now that Litvak has died. Thomas establishes early that to the outside world, the recently deceased was estranged from his family except for his wife (played wonderfully by Lynn Cohen), who most believe is struggling with Alzheimer’s or dementia. He also sets up that Yakov is taking medication, something that he struggles to afford, having to choose between food or the meds. Doing both of these so early on allows The Vigil to feel more internal at first than otherworldly. Is everything happening in Yakov’s head? Is it real or the result of his condition? This plays on the expectations of the horror trope of a broken character having to fight through their traumas to become healed. What Thomas does with this expectation is toy with it to the point of getting the audience right on the edge of their seat or sunk back on their couch griping a pillow. Thomas even uses Mrs. Litvak as the well-known horror trope of Harbinger, so that her presence in any scene becomes rife with tension and discomfort. Combine these with a film primarily shot in one location with an extensive use of extended single or tracking shots mixed with cinematography and set design intended to create the sense of the apartment closing in on Yakov, and you’re got yourself something truly unsettling.
Where I tip my hat to Thomas is that the film is pervasively Jewish. The characters slip in and out of Yiddish and Hebrew, as one might coming from an Ultra-Orthodox community; it is absent examination of Heaven or Hell; and it is completely authentic to the traumas of the Before and the Now. Even more so when considering the manner in which Yakov confronts the mazzik, arming himself with the traditions of his ancestors rather than with outlandish weaponry or incantations. The Jewish community has its share of iconography, accoutrements, and adornments, all of which possess a specific meaning and intent. Those within the community will recognize this and understand the cultural weight that comes from their inclusion and utilization, either by Thomas narratively or Yakov specifically. Personally, I’ve never seen tefillin wielded like armor and it is a revelation.
Trauma, personal or generational, is not something one just “gets over.” Instead, they must put in the work, take responsibility for their part (if there is any to bear), and find some kind of acceptance. This is, at their core, the reason for each of the holidays enjoyed by the Jewish community. We celebrate the sacrifices of those who endured, we remember to honor them, and we act as watchmen for the future. We are not perfect and, as a member of the Reform community, I personally, never strive for that. But through remembrance without guilt, without pain, we can acknowledge and move on. Unlike cinema, wherein a complete story is told from start to finish, the mazzik can return, if we allow it. If we let it feed rather than slumber. Intentionally or not, Thomas presents an entertainment that also serves as a cultural warning for clinging to pain and the threat it creates across time itself. Yakov may hold shomer over Mr. Litvak, protecting him through the night, but it is us all who must remain vigilant, protecting each other from trauma.
In select theaters, on VOD, and digital February 26th, 2021.
For more information, head to the official The Vigil website.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.