The Vast of Night (2019)
Director: Andrew Patterson
Screenwriters: James Montague, Craig W Sanger
Starring: Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz, Gail Cronauer, Bruce Davis
The Vast of Night is a razor-sharp little sci-fi and a stylistically confident directorial debut from Andrew Patterson. Presented like an extended episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’ or ‘The Outer Limits’, dipping into Roswell conspiracies and approaching visual storytelling from a sonic perspective, it could end up being one of the standout films of 2020.
It’s big game night at Cayuga High School and while the majority of a small New Mexico town are cheering their team, young switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) and local radio host Everett (Jake Horowitz) join forces to get to the bottom of a mysterious signal hijacking phone lines and airwaves.
The Vast of Night was filmed way back in 2016 and has since been shopping around for a home, which ended up being on Amazon. For every striking indie that gets picked up by a major film festival there are scores left languishing for their chance. Thankfully, this one was worth the wait.
This James Montague and Craig W. Sander written release is reminiscent of Tom Hardy speakerphone film Locke not only in that we follow solitary characters having a sequence of phone conversations but that it’s also so much more compelling than that sounds. The bulk of the film is made up of a series of long take scenes focusing on one or two characters in conversation, some ambitious tracking shots linking them together.
The film also echoes another recent indie sci-fi, The Endless, in how it portrays humanity being benignly observed and subtly psychologically manipulated. The film’s key narrative transitions either go into, or come out of a black-and-white TV set, like something extraterrestrial is watching the latest episode of their favourite show, a show called ‘Humanity’. The use of wide shots for much of the film, particularly in an early sequence following Fay and Everett from the school, through their town and to their places of work, adds to the sense of being voyeuristically observed from afar.
This film is essentially all about the power of storytelling. You’re reminded that a good story well told needs very little stylistic embellishment. The camera holds on the face of the enraptured listener as the tale is told, we are as hungry for any new information to make sense of the strange situation as the characters are.
The film, appropriately for one about a mysterious radio signal, plays liberally with sound, to the extent that the image is sometimes removed entirely to bring what we hear to the fore. Both lead characters work with sound and end up manipulating it using the tools available in their quest for the truth.
Being a 1950s period piece, The Vast of Night necessitates characters staying put to learn any new information. The radio station and switchboard have to be manned, communications technology is not portable in this period and therefore there is always a chance they might miss something as they rush out for the next clue in the mystery.
It’s quite amusing giving young actors, whose parents (maybe even grandparents) weren’t born at the time the film is set, dialogue with 1950s parlance and rhythm. McCormick and Horowitz take it all in their stride of course, but it is a rapid-fire, exaggerated way of speaking that takes some getting used to, like if Joss Whedon somehow got hold of a time machine.
The Vast of Night is an assured and well-mounted mystery film that grabs your attention from the off, thanks in no small part to the camerawork of MI Litten-Menz and the powerful sound design from Johnny Marshall. Simple and small-scale storytelling can sometimes be more captivating than the flashiest and most elaborate blockbusters.