In a small New Mexico town at the end of the 1950s, while the rest of the town is at a basketball game, high schoolers Everett (Jake Horowitz), who presents a local radio show and Fay (Sierra McCormick), who works part-time as the town’s phone switchboard operator, investigate a strange noise that cuts in to Fay’s switchboard.
Andrew Patterson presents his directorial debut as an episode of a fictional 50s sci-fi TV series called Paradox Theater (creating a paradox in that this 90 minute film is, in the end credits, shown to be an instalment of ‘The Scandelion Television Hour’). This device, while cute and nicely executed in the moments we view it through a TV screen of the era, doesn’t add anything to the overall picture. Nor does Patterson’s approach make the film feel like a lost episode of one of those shows; his camera is much more mobile and the acting style has none of the clipped Mid-Atlantic tones we often hear in 50s films and TV. However, this is the only real misstep in The Vast of Night.
The first ten minutes or so give little hint of what’s to come, instead introducing us to Everett and Fay as they wander around and outside the basketball game together; him showing her how to use her new reel to reel tape recorder and trying to coax her out of being shy and get her to talk into the recorder and ask random townspeople questions for the tape. This has dual benefits, first it allows us to get to know the characters and gives Horowitz and McCormick—who are both excellent—a chance to develop them without having to drive the plot forward. The film never tries to force a romance between them, but the chemistry works well and the playful dynamic is fun to be around. The other thing this opening passage does is establish a sense of space. By using multiple long tracking takes, walking behind his characters as they each travel to their audio workstations, Patterson gives us a sense of how small the town is and how quickly Everett and Fay can move between places, which also gives us the sense of the events unfolding almost in real time.
The discovery of the sound, as Fay sits listening to Everett’s show and patching calls back and forth, plays out something like a low tech Contact. The moment we first hear it, and the way it returns and builds, first through the phone system, then in Everett’s studio and subsequently in further discoveries has that same eerie thrill that comes through when we first hear the repeating pattern in Robert Zemeckis’ film. While it’s fairly static for a long time, with many minutes passing simply sitting in the exchange or the radio studio, The Vast of Night still manages to feel fast paced and dynamic. As the action passes, for the first time, from Fay to Everett, Patterson’s camera tracks from the exchange right through the deserted town, stopping briefly to explore the basketball game, before ending up in the radio studio. It retains that key sense of both space and place while also injecting movement into the film.
The direction the revelations about the sound take us in after Everett plays it on the air aren’t exactly surprising, but the scenes that writers James Montague and Craig W. Sanger create with them are object lessons in how well written dialogue, even if it is entirely expositional, can be just as gripping as any effects heavy action sequence, if not more so. One of the film’s best performances comes entirely in voiceover, from Bruce Davis as a former soldier who may have some answers about the sound.
Visually the film is very dark, and a murky screener copy means it’s tough to say much about the look, but Patterson’s command of the performances and the whole feel of the film still marks this out as an impressive debut, and the image will surely look better when I revisit it on its Amazon Prime release. The other key, and highly successful, element is the sound design, specifically on the sound itself, which is odd enough to be disquieting but not overtly or obviously threatening. We can see why Everett and Fay would be drawn to explore it without automatically feeling that it might be dangerous. The limited effects, whether they are practical or CG, are also very effective and have that same feel that is imbued in the sound.
On the whole this is an impressive and distinctive debut; a sci-fi movie that shows you don’t need skybeams or firefights to create characters we’re invested in or a story that, however small scale it is, feels high stakes.