Film Review – The Vast of Night
The Vast of Night
The Vast of Night (2020) plays like a great sci-fi thriller told ‘round a campfire. Using a minimal amount of sets and locations, the film makes the most of what is both seen and isn’t seen. The strength of the writing brings us in, rounding out character details and amplifying the tension. It’s rare for a film to be so engrossing, so sharp, and so suspenseful while almost always keeping the lurking menace off screen. It’s a credit to director Andrew Patterson and co-writers James Montague and Craig W. Sanger (all of whom are making their feature length debuts) to craft something that feels fresh and modern but calls back to classical movie making techniques.
There is a feeling of nostalgia throughout. The small fictional town of Cayuga, New Mexico in the 1950s is our setting. This is one of those dusty, all-American places where everyone knows everyone else, you can run from one end of town to the other without getting tired, and the biggest event is the local high school basketball game. Hot topic conversations involve squirrels chewing through electrical wiring. Patterson (along with cinematographer M.I. Littin-Menz) utilize long tracking shots, zipping through dirt roads just to show off how confined this place is. From the cars, costumes, and props, everything lends toward a time long since passed.
But the production doesn’t include these bits of history simply for nostalgia sake. This is the time of the Cold War, the threat of nuclear attack, the rise of science fiction films, and the birth of television. The narrative is framed as though we were watching a Twilight Zone-like show (here called Paradox Theater). At times, the visuals switch over to staticky black and white, as though we were watching this right off an old TV box. The approach could come off as gimmicky in lesser hands, but here feels like a subtle foreshadowing of things to come. If you’ve ever seen an episode of The Twilight Zone, you understand that might not be a good thing.
Our protagonists are the youngsters Fay (Sierra McCormick) and Everett (Jake Horowitz). Fay works as a phone switchboard operator; Everett is the disc jockey for the local radio station. While the rest of the town is at the basketball game, both Fay and Everett are working late into the night. However, just as their shifts begin, things start to get strange. Fay notices a weird signal being transmitted through her phone lines, producing a sound she has never heard before. Things get even more peculiar when that same signal interrupts Everett’s live broadcast. Soon, both Fay and Everett receive calls from people claiming otherworldly events happening on the outskirts of town. What could it be? UFOs, a Russian invasion, secret military testing? With most of the citizens unavailable, Fay and Everett take it upon themselves to investigate the source of the signal.
The joy of watching The Vast of Night isn’t in how the plot unfolds – we’ve seen similar scenarios play out in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) to name a few. But what makes this remarkable is how Patterson and his team avoid most clichés. There is a heightened focus on language and storytelling. The dialogue – rich in time specific colloquialisms (“Let’s bake some biscuits,” “Razzle my berries”) – is such a pleasure to listen to. The opening act features Everett and Fay simply walking in and out of the game, recording interviews and sharing a bit about themselves before going to work. The sequence is long but never boring – it adds texture to the town and gives dimension to both Everett and Fay. By the time they go to their respective jobs we already have a good grasp of who they are.
But oh, it doesn’t just stop there. The writing is also used to slowly make Fay and Everett realize that something is amiss. The camera rarely cuts away from them, pulling into a close up as Fay answers another weird call or when Everett interviews someone willing to give up their secrets. It’s a beautiful reversal of the “show don’t tell” idea of filmmaking. This time, Fay and Everett are being told everything but shown nothing, their subtle reactions is all that’s needed to raise the hairs on the back of our necks. Jake Horowitz and Sierra McCormick are excellent in their roles as charismatic teens caught up in a mystery that’s probably be bigger than they’re ready to handle. Their performances (as well as the verbal performances by those whom we don’t see) is highly effective. In fact, the conversations are so impactful that the visuals will often fade to black, leaving us to listen in on what is being spoken – kind of like listening to an old radio program.
The Vast of Night does answer the questions it raises, and when it does part of the mystique wears off. When the first two acts are this strong it’s almost impossible to maintain the momentum all the way to the end. But by the time we get there, it’s almost irrelevant. It’s been said that the journey is often more satisfying than the destination, and that certainly applies in this case. Watching the interactions of the performers, contained within a movie written and directed with confidence, is like watching a musician play a difficult song with ease or a dancer pulling off a move with little effort. When a story is told this proficiently, we’re willing to follow it wherever it wants to go.