The Vigil

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Vigil
"Thomas is one of those rare directors who knows how to take old tricks and imbue them with fresh power." | Photo: Vertigo Releasing

Since prehistoric times, the period between death and the disposal of a body has been considered dangerous. It's a liminal period, a time when life has gone but the body remains an active presence, influencing the living. most civilisations have developed special rituals for dealing with it. In Judaism, that means sitting shiva, watching the body and reciting scripture until the formal period of mourning is complete and the funeral can occur. When somebody dies with no family to take care of this, an appropriately experienced stranger has to be drafted in, helping to make sure that the soul leaves the body successfully and that the body does not fall prey to malignant spirits in search of a host.

Yakov (Dave Davis) is not a practising Jew. He has left a particularly insular community and is trying to get to grips with life in the wider world. But going it alone like this isn't just emotionally tough - it also means he has no financial support to fall back on when times are tough. So when Reb Shulem (Menashe Lustig) approaches him and asks him to sit shiva for a community member whose wife has dementia and can't do it herself, he reluctantly agrees. The job should last just one night and the money means he won't have to choose between food and rent. He knows the rituals and the old woman seems nice - but why does she worry when she sees him there, and why does she - despite the risk to her husband's soul - beg Shulem to send him away?

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There's a rich tradition of monsters in Jewish folklore and to date cinema has barely scratched the surface. The Vigil is much more than just another tale of possession and threat, however. There are awful secrets in the dead man's past, hinted at early on in flashback sequences, but the issue of culpability is a complex one. Meanwhile, Yakov is carrying his own guilt, related to the death of his younger brother. Keith Thomas' film concerns itself with guilt and, more broadly, with the effects of trauma. Understandably focused on his ow struggles, Yakov has to develop an understanding of how the trauma of the Holocaust has affected older generations in order to contextualise the antisemitism he has personally experienced and learn to sympathise with the Jewish community members who have made his life difficult.

If this sounds like a lot to chew on, it's packaged in a way that offers plenty of immediate, visceral chills and thrills.Thomas is one of those rare directors who knows how to take old tricks and imbue them with fresh power. The situation is complicated by the fact that Yakov has mental health problems - a legacy of his past trauma - and can't be confident that the strange things he sees are real. This is woven very effectively into the story and, crucially, the viewer is left uncertain only when this will contribute to the tension rather than depleting it.

Taking its time to build, the film walks a difficult line between psychological thriller and all out horror but, by and large, does it well. Its creature is genuinely scary, if a little overdone in places, and it connection to real world horrors encourages viewers to make an emotional connection. Davis, never showy, fills out the troubled protagonist very effectively and Lynn Cohen is well cast as the dead man's wife, in a sensitive portrayal of dementia that never lets her be reduced to a mere prop. This is a very impressive first film and one looks forward to seeing what Thomas will do next.

Reviewed on: 30 Jul 2020
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A man providing overnight watch to a deceased member of his former Orthodox Jewish community finds himself facing a malevolent entity.

Director: Keith Thomas

Writer: Keith Thomas

Starring: Dave Davis, Menashe Lustig, Malky Goldman, Lynn Cohen

Year: 2019

Runtime: 88 minutes

Country: US

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