They don’t stay for long.
The world that director Andrew Patterson and writers James Montague and Craig W. Sanger put on-screen for their film The Vast of Night isn’t real. Rather than transport us to 1950s New Mexico, we’re put in front of a TV to watch the latest episode of “Paradox Theater”—a “Twilight Zone” riff promising unexplained wonders—set in 1950s New Mexico. It’s an interesting formal decision since we never interact with the place in which we reside. We can neither look around the living room beyond that television nor see any behind the scenes aspects of the “show” that’s begun. Don’t think too hard about what this added level of disconnect might mean narratively, though, since it’s purely aesthetic. They’ve simply baked in a way to control our experience.
If we were in Cayuga to watch Fay (Sierra McCormick) and Everett’s (Jake Horowitz) sci-fi adventure, Patterson and company couldn’t cut to a commercial break for added dramatic effect. They couldn’t inexplicably turn the screen black as Billy (Bruce Davis) relays his mysterious tale about clandestine military operations over the phone so we’re forced to truly listen to his disembodied performance of those words and imagine the unbelievable event ourselves. The Vast of Night is therefore less homage to the genre than it is homage to what it was like to watch such programming back when technology was an unreliable Cathode-ray tube. It creates a time and place between our own and that of the story to tap into the nostalgia of our consumption above the content itself.
It’s a pretty cool mode of presentation that allows them to never worry about the fact that their script is unavoidably familiar. They can make this teenage journey of discovery suspenseful and fresh by how they provide their information. Sometimes it’s with a long take winding through the pre-game rituals of the local high school basketball team’s first game. Sometimes it’s with sound design when the camera focuses on Fay alone for five minutes as her phone operator switches the connections to figure out why so many are cutting off upon being infiltrated by an unknown sound. Add the aforementioned black screen to lend its sequence a radio-play quality and it’s not long before you realize how important atmosphere is to making small budgets appear huge.
Good actors are crucial too considering these types of independent films avoid special effects and action with dialogue. By setting up McCormick and Horowitz’s rapport during an extended introduction (that doubles as a geographic outline of the town to ensure we know the layout later on), we can understand who their characters are and when something spooks them. Fay gets nervous whenever she’s put on the spot (which talking to him does thanks to everyone around her supplying a knowing smile of romance whenever she mentions his name) and Everett is unflappably loquacious in a way that allows him to be charismatic on radio and abrasive off. So her calling him while he’s on-air to listen to that strange sound means something. His silence in response does too.
Where things go from here is perfect small town, pre-cellphone mystery since most everyone in town is at the game. This means hardly anyone is listening to Everett’s show and even less will be using phones to force Fay into missing that noise. So when the lines of people she’s relying on go dead, jumping to conclusions is a reasonable reaction. When Everett plays the sound live—against protocol—and asks his listeners if anyone knows what it is, curiosity abounds since those who would know probably aren’t cheering courtside at the school. No, they’re looking up into the sky because they’ve heard it once before. Billy and Mabel (Gail Cronauer) are being drawn back into the past and realizing it’s now or never to tell their secrets.
My favorite part of the movie is how effective it is at transporting us back to an era before texting. By writing the script in quasi real-time (everything happens during the game for a reason), Fay and Everett must physically get from place to place. They have to walk at the start, run when a trip to the library might hold answers, and “borrow” a car when more are discovered a few streets over. We’re roaming in the dark right behind them as out-of-towners drive by with tales of their own and the prospect of strangers with unexplained origins looms large. Dismissed coincidences become potential tragedies as details are revealed that shine new light on old events and the possibility for truth grows slimmer by the second.
The “Twilight Zone” nature of it all could easily make way towards full-blown aliens, but Patterson holds course to keep things subdued and focused on reactions instead. This helps to create some really unforgettable bits of tension when non-believers are converted (us included) as the filmmakers earns their accolades for what looks to be a meticulously storyboarded progression of vantage points that are able to maintain their sense of dread until a release can no longer be avoided. McCormick and Horowitz are very endearing (the quick-paced conversational back-and-forth they share is infectious in its hard-boiled yet cute way) and serve as wonderful tour guides through rural America post-Roswell UFO. Where else can you be seen and still disappear without a trace? It’s just a wild story without proof.
courtesy of Amazon