The Vast of Night, 2019.
Directed by Andrew Patterson.
Starring Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz, Erick Alexander, and Jared Bulmer.
In the twilight of the 1950s, on one fateful night in New Mexico, a young switchboard operator Fay and charismatic radio DJ Everett discover a strange audio frequency that could change their small town and the future forever.
In an era where streaming platforms can deliver tentpole-scale sci-fi stories to our TVs, laptops, and – God forbid – our phones, there’s something immediately quaint and refreshing about a direct-to-VOD genre offering which stridently attempts to do the polar opposite.
Though Andrew Patterson’s directorial debut The Vast of Night styles itself as something of an homage to The Twilight Zone – presented as a similar fictional ’50s TV series called “Paradox Theater” – it’s an infinitely more modest production than that. As such, those drawn in by the film’s glossy trailers are advised that this is better thought of as a radio play chamber piece with some slick connective tissue justifying the cinematic format.
In 1950s New Mexico, switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) and radio DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz) discover a bizarre frequency over the airwaves and promptly find themselves investigating the accounts of those who claim to know its origin.
Again, it’s worth repeating that Patterson’s 89-minute low-budget drama is unapologetically small-scale for practically its entire runtime, focused less on the possibility of otherworldly interlopers and more on constructing an authentic picture of mid-century small town America.
The film kicks off with a barrage of rat-a-tat dialogue rallied between Fay and Everett in a manner which seems primed to disorientate. There’s an undeniably heightened contrivance to the way in which the two speak – not unlike the noir-aping verbiage from Rian Johnson’s masterful Brick – which quickly assures audiences of precisely the unwieldy ride they’re in for.
Even if you struggle through the getting-to-know-you opening, proceedings pick up considerably at the 20 minute mark as the focal mystery is eagerly dug into. Here Patterson finds a firm meeting ground of characters and incident, all captured through economical yet effective filmmaking.
Dialogue is largely unfurled in long, static takes, further enhancing the aforementioned radio play feel. Patterson even dares to fade the screen to black intermittently in the middle of the movie when the leads take a pivotal radio call – a move as many will find obnoxious as others will daring. But on the strength of the phone call’s drama, it actually works.
And even if the mystery doesn’t always maintain full interest, the pic functions as an impressive testament to creativity within constraints; a gorgeous extended mid-film dolly throughout the town towards the high school and beyond is as butter-smooth as anything you’re likely to see in the mid-budget arena – if not above. Complimented by a lush musical score from Erick Alexander and Jared Bulmer, the film is an unexpectedly handsome calling card for Patterson and co., no matter its obviously minimal resources.
But The Vast of Night truly finds an appealingly meditative groove at the end of act one, even if its low-energy approach absolutely won’t be for all tastes. More than any other element, the film hinges firmly on the talents of its exceptional cast to sell the occasionally dry storytelling. McCormick in particular is remarkable as Fay, a seemingly naive young woman who nevertheless transcends bookish stereotypes through her sharp resourcefulness.
If Horowitz’s turn plays as slightly more period-affected, his chemistry with McCormick is nevertheless strong throughout, while supporting players Bruce Davis and Gail Cronauer lend considerable gravitas to their bit-part cameos – of the vocal and physical kind, respectively – as witnesses to the apparently paranormal phenomena.
These precise performances are wrapped in an impressively convincing period aesthetic and atmosphere which manages to evoke the time without being glibly nostalgic, as is so common these days. Wink-wink jokes are made about the absurd prospect of humans ever walking around with “TV phones” in their pockets, but there are also some genuinely trenchant observations about how humans always expect tech to progress too quickly, and that innovations often occur where we least expect it – the Internet, for one.
Ultimately The Vast of Night’s payoff simply won’t be worthwhile for everyone, with one foot planted in its prevailing kitchen sink approach and the other coyly tipping the hat to its more extroverted genre brethren. But if you’re game to spend an-hour-and-a-half in a sci-fi world that’s not rife with CGI monsters, spaceships, and explosions, there’s modest enjoyment to be found here.
Though its commitment to minimalism will leave many cold, Andrew Patterson’s low-fi sci-fi debut succeeds on the strength of its focused filmmaking and enticing performances.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.