In the twilight of the 1950s, on one fateful night in New Mexico, a young, winsome switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) and charismatic radio DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz) discover a strange audio frequency that could change their small town and the future forever. Dropped phone calls, AM radio signals, secret reels of tape forgotten in a library, switchboards, crossed patchlines and an anonymous phone call lead Fay and Everett on a scavenger hunt toward the unknown.
Platform: Amazon Prime Video
Movie Rated: All Ages
Genre: Action, Crime, Drama
Digital Premiere Date: 29 May 2020
The Vast of Night is the kind of science fiction thriller that seems to be made by someone who is either a big fan of the genre or has had significant exposure to it. It is set in the ‘50s in small-town Texas, and packs in plenty of allusions to previous films in the genre like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, TV anthologies like The Twilight Zone, and finally, mysterious radio plays. We begin with a faux Twilight Zone-style show called Paradox Theatre. An old TV set flickers in black and white even as the score lilts by in the background. We are then transported into the story - a colour version of today’s teleplay.
As mentioned before, The Vast of Night has a unique disposition of being almost format-bending. It is as much of a long episode in an anthology show on television, as it is a standalone film or a full-length vintage radio-play. In spite of a limited setting due to it being a period piece, Patterson manages to experiment quite a bit with the style of his screenplay. The high-concept visualisation of his movie seems to be inspired by auteurs of the craft.
The two characters used to propel the story forward are Everett and Fay, and while the former is more pragmatic and jaded, the latter believes that her town could, in fact, be the point where a strange history is being created. The juxtaposition of their personalities as well as beliefs, in addition to the simplicity of the adventure (bereft of any overindulgent CGI), is what makes the movie’s mystery interesting to a viewer because we seem to be unravelling it from the same naive wide-eyedness of Fay or the scepticism of Everett. But Gail Cronauer and Bruce Davis, who both play callers on the radio show, are what make the mystery. Just the slow rapture of their voice is haunting and spine-chilling. In fact, Davis’ character doesn’t even make it to the screen and remains a voice, but the disappointment of knowing how his character may have had to suffer, perhaps due to his race, is palpable.
The Vast of Night is a simple compelling story which is told in an exceptionally smart way. There is a technique to its writing, look and editing which makes it as believable a sci-fi mystery as the big-budget shows of today where flashy spectacle is used to make the unbelievable seem unbelievable. This is reminiscent of the teleplays and radio plays of yesteryear where you needed to pay full attention to not miss any details to the story. This is the film’s biggest achievement - that it is as much a part of a period canon as much as it invokes it.
For all the build-up, the story is seemingly moving towards the complete suspension of disbelief in the way that the audience is supposed to just enjoy the possibilities of what is actually going on. Unfortunately, for some people, the climax of the film may not be as satisfying keeping this in mind.
At some points during the long exposition dialogue, the screen cuts to black, putting in even more emphasis on the dialogue than the visual. But on the other end, there is impeccable production design and costume which is precise to the vintage electronic items and automobiles of that time. There is a lot of attention to detail in the film in both types of scenes. The camerawork has been done keeping in mind the distance in the dialogue between two characters as it reflects the distance between perspectives. Some scenes may seem longer or looser than required, but the eerie sound design and the wondrous story somewhat make up for those flaws.
Yes. While I have my reservations about how it ended, I was very much into the mystery.
Yes. If you have parents who were fond of black-and-white teleplays, especially of that generation who was obsessed with the extra-terrestrial, you may want to show this film to them. For fans of smart indies, this is a must-watch.