“There’s just something frankly exciting about watching this movie unfold with the smart confidence it exudes.”
by Ken Bakely
Precise in mood and tone, and shot with the buzzing haze that evokes the retelling of some old urban legend, Andrew Patterson’s The Vast of Night is a commanding directorial debut, a well-constructed genre tale that takes a straightforward concept and tells it with a propulsive and sturdy energy. Set in a small New Mexico town in the late 1950s, the film follows two young people – Fay (Sierra McCormick), a switchboard operator, and Everett (Jake Horowitz), a local radio host – who encounter a strange series of noises that begin warbling through the air one evening, and begin to feverishly investigate the strange phenomena, piecing together clues from listeners calling in. With the vast majority of the town at the local high school for a hotly-anticipated basketball game, the area is otherwise empty and quiet, making each potential disturbance all the more mystifying and unsettling to those around to notice them. The whole film is framed as an episode of a Twilight Zone-like sci-fi anthology, immediately putting us in the headspace to assume the strangest possibilities for what the two protagonists have stumbled upon. Patterson isn’t here to conceal any big surprises or unravel any unexpected reveals (it is, of course, aliens – and we aren’t led to believe any differently from minute one). Rather, he builds the story’s environment through a captivating sense of timing and setting; and for a first-time feature director, having a truly impressive control over the form on an elemental level.
Of course, the movie also boasts an impressive cast and crew around him to make this happen. Special mention must be given first to M. I. Littin-Menz, whose cinematography – based around the yellow glow of old-fashioned lightbulbs or streetlights and the inky blues of the nighttime sky – provides an immediate, unified, and deeply compelling visual identity. In front of the camera, McCormick and Horowitz lead the film with a sturdy confidence. For all the ominous plotting and setup going on in The Vast of Night’s script (written by a pseudonymous Patterson and Craig W. Sanger), the vast majority of the information is delivered through brief conversations or phone conversations: other characters drift in and out for a scene or two, but it’s mostly Fay and Everett moving between the radio station and traversing the town’s main streets, and it’s to their credit as actors that they establish and build upon their characters’ well-worn rapport without ceding too much time or energy to the big and mystifying stakes at hand. After all, much of the movie’s effect comes from a constant, unsettled effect of the unknown: that we might know what will happen, but we don’t know exactly how it will be uncovered. Through smart direction and well-considered performances, this balance of sturdy, tense buildup and delicate creativity in shaping the plot’s moment-to-moment evolution is largely an all-around success.
There’s just something frankly exciting about watching this movie unfold with the smart confidence it exudes. Even when the script can’t quite string all of its plot developments together with the same impressive smoothness of the stunning qualities of the film’s atmosphere, Patterson and company still keep everything working firmly together, and the movie pushes on with remarkable senses of both cohesion and stability. With the film’s vision and setting fixed firmly to the great innovations and the imposing ventures into the unknown that the Space Age occupies in our cultural mindset, it invents a world where those same impressions form the setup and execution of its plotting. It’s not for no reason that The Vast of Night has the title it does: what’s most immediately fascinating and impressive here is the way that Patterson builds an intimidating scale to the proceedings. Under the nighttime sky, these characters find themselves on the trail of something of a size and significance that defies what’s considered possible or what could ever be traditionally explained. But it’s in that discovery of – and fascination for – everything that entails that makes them so interesting to follow. The Vast of Night is a testament to the possibilities of a quick-witted and curious mindset, present in its characters as they work together onscreen, as well as the spirited resourcefulness that the film itself exudes in its composition.