Synopsis – In the twilight of the 1950s, on one fateful night in New Mexico, young switchboard operator Fay and charismatic radio DJ Everett discover a strange audio frequency that could change their small town and the future forever.
My Take – While I do enjoy watching the visual ascetics and complexities of a blockbuster sci-fi unfold on screen gloriously (my expectations from Christopher Nolan’s upcoming Tenet are currently indescribable), my heart has always been on set on discovering and unfolding the ones made in the indie variety, who unlike their big budgeted counterparts are often more focused on telling a unique tale without getting lost in the spectacle.
Such as this film from first-time feature director Andrew Patterson, which released on Amazon Prime Video and has been playing at a handful of drive-ins in the U.S., which takes the story of a small town alien abduction theme and carries out the story precisely the way one would expect.
Though I have been anticipating this one for while (as I am huge fan the UFO sub-genre), I did not predict it to be so pleasantly and thickly atmospheric, beautiful, so Twilight Zone inspired, in simpler terms, it is just plain awesome. Add to that the fantastic performances from its small and largely unknown cast, and some of the best cinematography I have ever seen, which includes the use of long takes and tracking shots.
This one is a classic tale that stays true to what makes the sub-genre so appealing, while innovating and delivering fresh and interesting tactics to keep one glued to the screen.
Stylized as an episode of Paradox Theater, a television show similar to The Twilight Zone, the story set in Cayuga, New Mexico in the 1950s, follows two teenagers, Fay (Sierra McCormick) and Everett (Jake Horowitz). Living in a small town where everybody knows everybody, the two – one a switchboard operator, and the other local radio DJ, find themselves in a weird night where they face strange noises and power discrepancies while most of the town remains gathered at a big basketball game taking place at the school.
With the aid of calls from impassioned strangers who claim to know something about the classified history of these signals, and the lights in the sky that accompany them, Fay and Everett embark on a scavenger hunt of sorts to get to the bottom of the apparent strange activity.
Things that follow are just very impressive, and become even more impressive in the light of the fact that this is the first feature film from director Andrew Patterson and both his writers, James Montague and Craig W. Sanger, who despite their small-screen influences and tiny budget, turn this film into a shockingly cinematic adventure, overflowing with the kind of inventiveness you rarely see nowadays.
The most winning element of the film is the way it infuses you with wonder by capturing that breathlessness and the emotions of our protagonists so well. While the pacing is brisk it does enough to develop both Fay and Everett separately and together, and increasingly ratchets up the tension so we steadily move from Fay asking a panicked caller, “Ma’am, please, is this an emergency?” to Everett observing that the inexplicable radio frequency is “good radio” to the two of them finally realizing that this mystery might in fact be dangerous.
In the first half, much of the early action seems inconsequential, but that’s the point. Like he opening walk-and-talk conversation between Everett and Fay, in which she regales him with her futurist, Popular Mechanics-fueled dreams of the worlds of wonder that will exist in 1974 and 2000, takes up the first 15 minutes or so of the 90-minute film, but it’s never less than fascinating. However, director Patterson is nudging the viewer to listen, to pay attention to little details, and to home in on characters who might not seem crucial to the plot. And once the chitchat is down, Fay settled down at her night-shift job and hears a noise over the lines, a humming rattle that indicates things are about to get weird. She alerts Everett, who starts taking calls about the phenomenon at his local radio station. Suddenly the camera is eerily still; there’s no action in the background to distract the viewer. All that listening everyone’s been doing is about to pay off.
As you may have surmised from above, and from the film’s stylized poster of a radio tower, radio is a major influence on this narrative. And its radio that creates the treasured pauses, where 10-minute monologues breathe in near absolute stillness. Several times, the screen goes black to allow complete engagement with sound and imagination. It’s a confident and assured maneuver.
It’s also aggressively out of line with most trends in genre film making. Much credit for the success also goes to the camerawork. The beautiful tracking shots persist throughout the film, including one where we are quickly transported through the quiet small town setting seamlessly into the busy action of the high-school basketball game. These shots are also complimented by long takes that have almost no obvious movement at all, save for maybe a methodical zoom towards the character as they deliver a captivating monologue. As for screenplay, the film plays out in real-time which lets us hang on to every lasting feeling of mystery and suspense.
Yes, the film does demand your patience, in particular as Fay and Everett listen to the veteran caller named Billy who recounts his experience being involved in a potential government cover-up. His tale stretches on a bit too long, and your attention might wander, but the film masterfully balances both hiding and teasing us with aspects of a reveal that do enough to terrify and excite, leading up to a simply beautiful payoff that feels as rewarding as it is earned.
However, I do feel ‘The Twilight Zone’ was a bit unnecessary, and the film would have been better off without it. Other than that, this film is hard to fault.
Another impressive factor about the film is pair of lead performances from both Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz who shine throughout with their earnestness. The film puts a lot on them, especially by asking them to hold such prolonged attention, but the troupe carries it off magnificently.
The supporting cast is also top-notch with Gail Cronauer and Bruce Davis, in particular, owning the film for 10 minutes each as they share their personal history. On the whole, ‘The Vast of Night’ is a uniquely captivating sci-fi thriller uplifted by its superb direction, incredible performances and stunning cinematography.
Directed – Andrew Patterson
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 89 minutes