Toward the end of Nicholas Racz's quirky, quiet, noirish thriller, "The Burial Society," Sheldon Kasner, the film's protagonist but certainly not its hero, whines: "Why can't anything ever be easy for me?" It's a line Woody Allen might have used in "Take the Money and Run," but while Sheldon has elements of Allen's nebbish-turned-wannabe-thief, he is darker, more complex and far craftier. So is Racz's film about death and rebirth, real and metaphoric.
A newcomer to town, 40-something Sheldon (Rob LaBelle), whose name, spectacles and receding hairline enhance his sepia-toned meekness and ordinariness, seeks to join the tiny Jewish community's chevra kadisha, which prepares the dead for burial. To the elderly, wary, tight-knit chevra kadisha triumvirate -- Hy (Allan Rich), Marvin (Jan Rubes) and Harry (Bill Meilen) -- Sheldon explains that he has abandoned his career as loan officer to find meaning in his life. When the trio is still skeptical, Sheldon reveals that his employers tried to kill him because he was privy to the money-laundering taking place at the bank.
"Bad money came to be redeemed," Sheldon says. "It traveled from darkness into light."
With that, Sheldon is welcomed into the burial society and taught its rituals by men who play cards and grouse when they're not performing a tahara (purification) or watching over a body until its interment, or delivering medication and homemade matzah ball soup to an ailing community member. Increasingly fond of their protégé, they view Sheldon's arrival as a Divine act that will save the chevra kadisha and Jewish tradition that survived the Nazis but is now threatened -- Marvin laments with bitter irony -- by lack of funding.
But Sheldon, we soon learn, is Darrel Zimmer -- "the world's least likely criminal," on the run from police who suspect his involvement in the homicide of his former employer, Stuart Lightman, and the disappearance of Stuart's brother, Jake. Zimmer is also being hunted by Sam Goldberg, a Jewish mob boss from whom he has embezzled $2 million. Hence Zimmer's rebirth as "Sheldon" in a small town, and his urgency to join its chevra kadisha so he can appropriate a body and stage his death.
Sheldon, it turns out, is not the only one who isn't what he seems. With the exception of the Lightman brothers, one-dimensional stereotypical thugs, and mob king Sam Goldberg, who is no Don Corleone, Racz does a deft job in providing surprises and twists through the nuanced layering of his characters: Sheldon/Darrel; Sheldon's brother, Morrie (David Paymer); the superintendent of the building where Sheldon has found lodging; and, most importantly, Hy, Harry and Marvin. Hy is the gruff one, the loose skin on his expressive face pulled down by gravity and, one suspects, dashed expectations; Harry is the "youngster" who defers to his two colleagues; Marvin, with his elegant European accent and regal carriage, is the philosopher and Sheldon's mentor. The three are, as the title suggests, the film's center. They function as a unit, bound by decades of friendship and their devotion to the chevra kadisha. But they are not saints either, and their actions are morally ambiguous.
Racz has imbued his film with the necessary ingredients of a thriller: the missing millions; the mounting tension as Zimmer's hunters close in; Sheldon's terror and desperation when his clever plan unravels. Adding intrigue are flashes to an unidentified face, eerily lit and masked by shadows, that becomes the leitmotif of the film. But what distinguishes and enriches "The Burial Society" is the mystery that takes place inside the chamber where the taharas (ritual cleansings) take place. Outside this room Hy, Harry and Marvin are old men passing time by playing gin rummy. Inside, they become keepers of a hallowed tradition. Donning kippot and reverence (and accompanied by a delicate, lullabylike score), they recite psalms as they sponge and dress each body with tenderness and respect that underscore the brutality of Sheldon's subsequent sacrilege.
"This knot from the kabbalah is 2,000 years old," Hy informs Sheldon as he secures a simple shroud. The pieces of earthenware placed on the deceased's eyes will protect him from the bright light when he arrives in the next world. The twig placed in his hand, which will turn into a staff, symbolizes that he takes nothing material with him on his final journey.
It is a lesson Sheldon doesn't take to heart, but one that ultimately proves true. In "The Burial Society," bad money is not the only thing that came to be redeemed and traveled from darkness to light.
The Journal is co-hosting a special screening of "The Burial Society" on Wednesday, July 28, at 7:30 p.m. at the Laemmle's Fairfax 3, 7907 Beverly Blvd. West Hollywood. To R.S.V.P., e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. The film opens July 30 at both Laemmle's Fairfax 3 and Laemmle's Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino. For more information, visit www.laemmle.com.
Rochelle Krich is the L.A. Times best-selling author of the award-nominated mystery series ("Blues in the Night," "Dream House") featuring Orthodox tabloid journalist Molly Blume. The opening chapter of "Grave Endings," arriving this October from Ballantine, can be found at www.rochellekrich.com.