Yakov’s so broke that he can’t even afford his antipsychotic medication, so the ghosts that visit him in “The Vigil” may or may not be all in his head. He sees them anyway, through the perilously under-lit gloom of the Boro Park house that once belonged to Rubin Litvak (Ronald Cohen), now dead. Rubin has a wife, by the way, and she’s even played by the great Lynn Cohen, but this is Yakov’s show. “The Vigil” is ostensibly about his struggle to maintain a personal connection with a religion that he broke ties with, under conditions that are only negligibly explained. But Yakov submits to these neurotic trials anyway, because “for thousands of years, religious Jews have practiced the ritual of ‘the vigil’,” as the movie’s solemn opening crawl tell us.
And yet: the most personal thing about “The Vigil” and its consideration of Yakov’s feelings is how murky everything is. He’s steeped in clichés about how secular Millennials see the world—they text and FaceTime with each other, sometimes in the dead of night!—and how that shapes their limited perspective.
Yakov is often quite literally in the dark, and his path is only sometimes illuminated by the words of older Jewish men like his therapist Dr. Marvin Kohlberg (Fred Melamed), who appears as a disembodied voice over the phone, and Rubin Litvak, who emerges as a silvery-grey blur on an old CRTV, rambling about demons and such. There’s also the pushy but maybe sincere Hasidic Rabbi Shulem (Menashe Lustig), the guy who got Yakov this white elephant of a gig; Shulem basically leaves the picture once he’s set everything up. Oh, and Mrs. Litvak, who warns Yakov that he should get out of her house, but then changes her mind, and says that it’s too late to get out because whatever’s inside will now follow him outside. So, I guess she counts, too.
Point being: Yakov’s the guy, and we see this later on when he inevitably arms himself with his tefillin, a protective link to the past (as described in Exodus) that he wraps around his forearm and forehead before delving deeper into the Litvaks’ home. A synthesizer score complements Yakov’s transformation and confirms his re-emergence as an avenging hero, like Jewish Rambo, only with a leather strap instead of a Bowie knife.
This sort of paint-by-numbers horror narrative barely scratches the surface of the heavy issues it alludes to, especially during the above-mentioned flashback, which suggests that Yakov doesn’t know how to synthesize his dual identity as a Jew and an American. Yakov presumably wants to get away from his past, but repression is, unto itself, only so interesting.