“Stick with our station and get lost in our sounds.”
Deeply inspired by the past while being privy to futuristic predictions, The Vast of Night is the kind of low-budget, micromanaged, and commanding directorial debut that feels every bit as seasoned an effort as you’d expect from a vastly more experienced filmmaker. It’s a studied picture, exploring outside the trappings of its obvious Twilight Zone inspiration, featuring an end result that builds upon clean, crisp, and precisely measured means. The Vast of Night is an impressively self-contained feature – told through cupped ears, quick dialogue, and shaggy airwaves – that casts the kind of scratchy spell unique to its old and solemn setting, and it’s among the most memorable movie experiences I’ve had so far in this otherwise lackluster year. It’s an easy movie to miss and a hard film to forget.
From the very first shot, we’re literally pulled and drawn into the film’s astral aura, transported – or, better yet, maybe teleported – through time to a place so specific. Rows of Bel Airs and Wagons are parked in lines outside the High School Gymnasium. The fictional yet familiar small town of Cayuga, New Mexico serves as the secondhand setting. It’s on the court where we meet the fast talking and confident Everett (Jake Horowitz), a young radio host and major celebrity in a minor locale. By his side throughout is Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick), a bookish, bespectacled, deeply curious switchboard operator whose open ears paint most of her pictures. The two make for a balanced and intelligent duo.
Most of the townspeople are at the big game. Everett is at the aptly named WOTW station (a clear nod to Orson Welles’ famous “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast) hosting his show to a few listeners. Faye is filling in for her mom on the switchboards. A foreign static comes across the airwaves and brings with it a need to understand the unknown for the protagonists. And what’s so incredible about the film is how, during these moments of discovery, it’s able to ratchet up tension through both basic and complex means. Sometimes all you need to fill the air is remarkable dialogue and a long, static shot. Other times you can implement a stunning, fast-paced, unbroken oner to instill how small this town is, and how quickly outside forces can cover the entire landscape. Few movies made on this small of a scale are ever really believable because they simply feel phony. Not only is The Vast of Night authentic in honoring its Twilight Zone heritage, it’s also incredibly ambitious. Aided by a simple yet profound score tailor made for an early Amblin feature, the technical prowess only further amplifies and elevates the already razor sharp script.
While the film has a few curious stylistic choices that detract more than they add (the long stretches of complete darkness make sense but are cumbersome, as are the segues in and out of TV screens throughout), The Vast of Night should otherwise go down as an impressive and economical debut from writer/director Andrew Patterson. He’s made a lean film, written with the hyper dialogue of an Aaron Sorkin script and directed with the finesse and ingenuity of the still young Oscar winner Damien Chazelle. That’s not bad company to keep. And yet, what’s most refreshing is how Patterson is able to honor Ron Serling’s old storytelling techniques and infuse them with a modern sensibility, to light them with a flare. I’ve watched this film 3 times to date and am always drawn to the pacing and the paranoia and its messaging, suggesting that despite the old phrase about seeing, hearing can in fact be the first gate to believing. Flick off the lights, press play on The Vast of Night, and travel back in time. It’s a ride that envelops you and sucks you right up.
“This is good radio.”
Rating: 4 out of 5