At the beginning of Andrew Patterson’s The Vast of Night, we are shown a vintage television set, on which we will watch the remainder of the film, the narrative of which is housed within the The Twilight Zone-inspired show Paradox Theater.
On tonight’s episode of Paradox Theater: 1950s, small town New Mexico. The Cayuga High School boys are gearing up for their big basketball game, and the night’s event has brought nearly the entire town to the school gymnasium. Amid this bustle of people is Everett (Jake Horowitz), who strolls around the gym like he owns the place, acting smooth and busting chops as he interacts with classmates, parents, and faculty. Long takes follow him traipsing around. He takes someone’s trombone. He’s asked to check on the electricity of the building. And Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick) asks him to help her set up her tape recorder.
We learn that Everett works at the radio station and Fay at the switch board operator. As the rest of the town settles in at the gymnasium, Everett walks Fay to her job and then moseys on over to his own. And that’s when things start going awry.
The Vast of Night is, more or less, a tale of investigative journalism. When strange noises start coming in on the switchboard, Fay asks various people, including Everett, to look into it. Everett picks up the noise and puts it on the radio, which attracts a couple of strange callers that talk about people in the sky and covert government operations. Fay and Everett’s search for the truth takes over from there, as they try to find out if there is anything real behind these tall tales of aliens.
From beginning to end, The Vast of Night is gripping. The linear action may seem a simple construction, but the sheer grit of the two protagonists is hard to look away from. The investigative plot appears like it is headed in a clear direction, and for the most part it keeps heading that way, but it is compelling to watch these two characters uncover another piece of potential evidence and then move on to the next thing.
And Patterson is adept at putting us intimately within the characters’ situation. The shots that open the movie, in the gymnasium and on the walk toward the two characters’ respective places of work, are mostly composed of long shots that see the characters walking from a distance. The night has a kind of hazy fog to it, which even conceals their faces. We are following them through the town, eavesdropping. But once Fay reaches the switch board operating station, we are in tight close up with her the entire time. From here, we grow to have a more intimate visual relationship with these two characters, and we are pulled into their pursuit as a passenger.
Patterson also utilizes the 1950s technology in a fascinating way. The narrative hinges on radio frequency to tell its story, so the prevalence of technology is motivated. But the director could have chosen to minimize the screentime that these technological devices have. Instead, Patterson shows Fay working the switch board for a substantial amount of time. We are in the room with her and the machine for an extended period of time without cutting away. Later, we will see Everett working a tape player; he manually places reels into the machine over and over again in the pursuit of a piece of information. It is a scene that could have been significantly edited down, but Patterson just lets us watch the machine come to life and then die again.
Often, movies depicting the past will address them as devoid of modern technology, as opposed to prevalent with their own tech. I find it fascinating that this movie necessitates the use of technology in order to find truth, as it both points towards the technological state of today and immerses us in the world of 1950s suburban America.
This is Patterson’s film debut, and it is an impressive achievement at that. But there are some instances where the film’s construction is distracting. Patterson uses a technique for atmosphere’s sake where the film will fade to black and hold there, making it appear, perhaps, like a radio drama a la Orson Welles doing H.G. Wells. Then it cuts back to the same spot. It is an interesting technique that has an effect (at the very least, it is an unexpected choice that prompts you to lean in). However, he overuses the technique in a way that makes it less attention-grabbing over time. Additionally, scenes of intensity are often accompanied by shots of minimal and distracting shot length.
But these are minor grievances in a film that is otherwise visually impressive and narratively entertaining. The two leads—Horowitz and McCormick—are fantastic in their very active roles. They walk and talk and have a lot of hand business, but it all feels natural. More importantly, the performances are engaging. The Vast of Night is a stellar debut for Patterson, and it is a fun, low-key science fiction film. Don’t expect heavy sci-fi elements, though. This is mainly an investigative mystery with a sci-fi bent.
The Vast of Night: B+
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)