The Vigil, the feature debut of writer/director Keith Thomas, is out this week in theaters and VOD. The chilling film offers a glimpse into an otherwise insular community, and gives its audience a perspective we rarely see in genre filmmaking.
The film centers on Yakov Ronen (Dave Davis), a young man who has recently left his Hasidic Jewish community in the wake a personal tragedy, as he attempts to acclimate to the outside world. Unfortunately, he is struggling to make ends meet financially so when Reb Shulem (Menashe Lustig) offers to pay him to sit an overnight vigil with a recently deceased man, he reluctantly takes the job and the responsibility.
Unfortunately for him, this will not be a normal night acting as shomer for the dead. As the shadows of the home close in around him, he realizes that he is not alone, and he finds himself drawn into a terrifying struggle for his soul.
There is something unsettling about The Vigil from the very moment the film opens. It feels as though we are witnessing something we should not be even though Thomas has essentially pulled back the curtain and invited us inside.
As Yakov settles in and fidgets between saying the appropriate prayers and texting a young woman he met at his support group, a heavy quiet settles over the screen and the viewer. This intentional quiet, in itself, is unnerving, but becomes even more weighted when we hear the slightest creaks from another room and worse from around the body itself.
Thomas has essentially crafted a one-man show that could easily play out on a stage exactly as it does onscreen. This, of course, means that much of the film relies on Davis, but fear not, he is most definitely up to the challenge. The actor has a magnetic presence. You simply cannot take your eyes from him. Every gesture has meaning; every facial expression tells a story.
Davis is not entirely alone, however. Actress Lynn Cohen appears as the widow of the man for whom Yakov is sitting vigil, and she is fantastic throughout the film. Sadly, it is one of her final appearances on screen, but it is one that fans will not soon forget.
She moves from menacing to tired to lost and afraid so naturally that we never doubt that this woman has just lost her husband. It is one of the most honest, raw performances I’ve seen since Lin Shaye in Room for Rent, and if she had played the role in any other genre, her performance would have put her name on any number of award nominee lists.
One further note, it is a blatant cliché when reviewing a film that takes place inside a home to call the building itself a character, but it is unavoidable here. The home, in itself, is not all together impressive on the surface. It is quaint with the kind of furnishings and decorations you might see in your own grandparents’ home.
As the lights dim and the night progresses, however, the space seems to alternately grow and shrink. The walls breathe. The shadows reach for Yakov, and dark chambers open where you least expect them.
As I watched, I was reminded of Thomas’s words from a statement that I received announcing the release of the film:
One person’s struggle can take on a mythic quality that resonates far more than stories about countries or even worlds at war. All of us have suffered “dark nights of the soul” (likely several times over during the upheaval of the past year) and most of us emerge from those lean and often frightening hours changed – generally for the better but sometimes for the worse.
The Vigil is, at its core, a dark night of the soul, and one like we’ve rarely seen. In the history of genre filmmaking, especially here in the States, stories of religious communities confronting spiritual darkness are so often rooted in Christian mythos and the trappings of the Catholic Church, especially. There is a sort of comfort in this. We know the words we’ll hear. We know the way the exorcism will play out. We know the way a priest will confront dark entities and demons.
Thomas has taken all of that away from his viewers, and that is the most effective decision of them all.
The Vigil opens on February 26, 2021 in theaters, on demand, and digital platforms with distribution from IFC Midnight.