Last year, a sci-fi thriller entitled The Vast of Night premiered at the 2019 Slamdance Film Festival. Shot on a shoestring budget and helmed by first time director Andrew Patterson, the movie collected rave reviews as it made its way through the festival circuit.
Today, the film is finally getting a wide release via Amazon’s Prime Video streaming service and a a run in select drive-in theaters across the country. Let’s take a look and see what all the fuss is about and if this one’s worth part of your weekend viewing time.
Everett (Jake Horowitz) and Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick) are two incredibly smart and tech savvy friends living in Cayuga, New Mexico during the 1950’s. They also happened to be the people who keep their small town connected to each other and the outside world. Everett is a radio DJ and Fay is a switchboard operator who works nights after attending high school during day.
If it wasn’t for the film’s very deliberate opening homage to The Twilight Zone, you’d be hard pressed at first to guess it had anything to do with UFOs or extra terrestrials. The opening minutes are spent with Everett as he helps the broadcast crew at the local high school basketball game with some tech issues before meeting Fay so they can walk together toward their respective jobs.
On the way there, Everett helps Fay learn to operate her new tape recorder and utilizes the gym’s parking lot to give her a crash course in how to interview people. As their journey continues, it becomes apparent that these are two incredibly bright kids–especially Fay, who rattles off a stream of future predictions from various science magazines she reads.
Once they get to their jobs and Fay starts taking calls, however, stuff starts to get weird.
After hearing a strange noise coming through the switchboard, she connects to a frantic woman describing some type of craft hovering above her property before the call abruptly ends. With the sleepy town’s police force unavailable and the majority of its residents at the basketball game, Fay decides to call Everett to get his opinion on what might be happening.
If you’ve ever watched any sort of UFO-based science fiction, then you’ve already got a pretty good idea about what comes next. This particular tale, however, follows a unique road map to arrive at its very familiar destination.
Whatever you think of the story, Horowitz and McCormick doing a fantastic job with their roles. Fay in particular is a near perfect mix of shy self-awareness and determined grit. Everett can be a little grating at times, but his personality ends up playing a good foil to Fay’s.
As far as the story is concerned, it’s definitely a slow burn, but also jam-packed with style and flare (maybe a little too much). The script by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger vacillates between an earnestly genuine tone and hardboiled surrealism. Both are great, but the shifts are occasionally jarring.
That said, the dialogue is consistently engaging, especially when the narrative begins its slow descent into something otherworldly. A sense of wonder and dread simultaneously overtakes the story, all from the perspective of two extremely smart characters who we’ve quickly become attached to. I found myself struggling with a desire to see them uncover a mystery and being deathly afraid for their wellbeing.
By the time we reach the film’s conclusion, it’s probably what you expected, but not in the manner you thought it would be presented. Also, for a film made on such a small budget, the FX work that we do get to see is incredibly well executed.
Behind the camera, first time director Andrew Patterson proves that he’s a talent to keep an eye on. There are a ton of gorgeously framed shots to behold–and one in particular that is absolutely breathtaking. I know we’re on the verge of long/single take moments being chastised as an overused gimmick, but as someone who admits to being an unabashed fan of them, Patterson’s journey across town might be one of my all-time favorites.
Unfortunately, Patterson’s confidence in the director’s chair is also where things occasionally go a bit wonky.
What Doesn’t Work
I’m not a huge fan of stage plays, but there were more than a few times when it felt like The Vast of Night might have worked even better as one. This was most apparent during a long stretch near the film’s climax where Patterson kept the camera focused in one position for a solid five minutes on an old woman
providing exposition telling a story. Despite my previous declaration of love for extended takes, there were multiple times during the film where I was surprised to find myself longing for an edit to break things up.
There were also some stylistic choices that crossed the line from being interesting into pretentious territory. While I appreciate the filmmakers giving us a more detached/”alien” prospective of the proceedings, the cuts to a view from a black & white television took me out of the story more than anything. I had a similar reaction to Patterson’s decision to repeatedly fade the screen to black during a riveting phone call between Everett and one of the local townspeople. Horowitz’s fantastic acting and Bruce Davis’ superb voice work were more than enough to keep me engaged.
I do appreciate when a director tries something different, but there were times that the taught film Patterson constructed shifted into what felt like experimental sizzle reel.
All that being said, The Vast of Night is a film that has stuck with me days after my first viewing. It took a well worn sci-fi formula and presented the story in a completely new perspective without tossing the elements that make it work. Superb acting performances, gorgeous camera work, and a haunting vintage score by Erick Alexander and Jared Blumer make this a movie worth seeing despite its missteps.
And if you’re lucky enough to get to see this one at a drive-in theater, make sure you and yours don’t listen too closely to any weird noises you hear coming from the radio on the way home.
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