I really didn't know what to expect from The Vast of Night, but I definitely didn't expect to be so thoroughly blown away. This is the debut film from director Andrew Patterson. You would never know it represented his first time at bat because everything about the picture feels like the work of an accomplished veteran. It's that confidently made. Better still, it's a total original – a spellbinding marriage of story and style that had me riveted from start to finish.
The movie opens on a 1950's living room, where a TV is tuned into a Twilight Zone-esque program. As the show's intro concludes, the camera moves right into the screen. A small New Mexico town during that era is the setting for the tale being told. We're quickly introduced to two characters as they wander around a local high school basketball game that's about to begin. Everett (Jake Horowitz) is a fast-talking local radio DJ. Fay (VFW's Sierra McCormick) is a teenage switchboard operator. They walk and talk, with the DJ offering his friend advice on operating her cassette recorder and interviewing locals.
Later on, she's at work and listening to his show. A strange signal interferes with the reception on the radio, as well as in her telephone lines. Fay plays it for Everett, who broadcasts it over the air to see if anyone knows what it might be. Someone does.
No more should be said about the plot of The Vast of Night, other than what follows is a real-time quest to determine the origin and meaning of that signal. As the townsfolk are preoccupied with the basketball game, Everett and Fay uncover increasingly mysterious clues suggesting an occurrence in their vicinity that is either wondrous or terrifying – they just don't know which yet. (And, to the movie's credit, neither will you.)
The Vast of Night is 100% convincing in its recreation of 1950s small-town life. We've seen other films set in the era, so the look can obviously be achieved. Patterson goes beyond that by making you feel like you're fully in this location. A magnificent unbroken tracking shot in the middle goes out the radio station door and all the way across town – past homes, cars, stores, etc. – before ending up inside the high school auditorium, moving through and around the basketball players as they compete. There does not appear to be CGI in this shot. The low-budget movie probably couldn't afford it anyway. So how is the authenticity generated? Maybe Patterson shot in a real town that's stuck in time. I don't know. However he did it, the effect in that shot and throughout the picture is captivating.
Patterson tells the story in an unexpected manner. There are very few scenes, with most of them running long. The sequence where Fay first tells Everett about the signal runs around ten minutes is just her sitting at her station, plugging phone cables into different slots and nervously talking to him. Another scene that's about seven or eight minutes finds Everett (and whatever audience is tuned in) listening to a caller disseminate information pertaining to the noise. The screen even turns completely to black in the middle of the scene, leaving only the audio. Later still is a five-minute scene with a local woman explaining how her past may tie into the mystery.
That may sound boring, and yet it's the complete opposite. The quality of the writing in The Vast of Night is so high that we hang on every word. Patterson and writers James Montague and Craig W. Sanger have no need for action scenes or rapid-fire editing. They create suspense through what the characters say to each other and, more importantly, how they react to things that are said. Everett and Fay recognize that something otherworldly might be taking place, so their curiosity / excitement / anxiety transfers to us. Horowitz and McCormick make the dialogue work exceptionally well. By the time the film arrives at its finale, we can hardly wait to have the secrets revealed.
Gorgeous sepia-toned cinematography from Miguel Ioann Littin Menz seals it all together. I've never seen a movie quite like The Vast of Night, and I'm guessing you haven't either. Intelligent, inventive, and alluring, it's nothing short of a modern sci-fi masterpiece.
Note: The Vast of Night is in select theaters and available on Amazon Prime.
out of four
The Vast of Night is rated PG-13 brief strong language. The running time is 1 hour and 29 minutes.