This radio-themed thriller takes a while to find the signal, but winds up playing an engaging tune.
This movie was quite an enigma when I previewed it for our May Amazon Prime article. The description shed little light on the plot, other than a local radio station and possible UFOs. The director’s filmography is scant. The trailer wasn’t much help either.
The Vast of Night carries some of this confusion with it into the first act of the film. I nearly checked out before the film could really get going. Luckily, the film finds its groove as soon as the spooky stuff starts happening, and leads to quite a breathless science fiction thriller.
The Vast of Night (2020)
Everett (Jake Horowitz) and Fay (Sierra McCormick) are just about the only two people in their tiny border town not at the big game. Fay works the night shift as a switchboard operator, while Everett is the fast-talking DJ at the local radio station. Both begin to experience odd phenomena, leading them on a race to discover the source of a strange signal.
A Little Conceited.
The Vast of Night sets itself quite a few hurdles due to the chosen conceits of the piece. A frame narrative shows that the main story is an episode of a Twilight Zone-esque paranormal show. The interior plot takes place in the 1950’s in a small border town near an army base. The first act tries to quickly get you up to speed on everything you need to know about the time, place, and zeitgeist integral to understanding the film. It nearly breaks the first act.
Director Andrew Patterson takes the boldest route through the territory: straight through, on a forced march. No sooner has the “episode” begun then we are whipped around as we follow Everett through a expositional tour of the town. During a nonstop fountain of period lingo from him, we meet most of the town, are introduced to the basketball game that allows our protagonists to be isolated, and get a feel for the dynamics of tiny Cayuga, New Mexico.
This whirlwind tour brings shows up a major strength of the piece – its exhilarating camera work – and several of its weaknesses – overwrought dialogue and aggravating character design.
Jake Horowitz plays Everett like a teenage Sam Rockwell. As much as I love Rockwell’s work in Moon and Heist, his constant patter and in-group buzzword slinging can quickly become overwhelming. Everett is at times feels like a caricature of Rockwell’s delivery, constantly spouting 1950’s Americana shibboleths with a carnival barker’s mannerisms. It’s off-putting early, though the character settles down when events become serious.
Likewise, Fay can grate on the nerves. She varies between a Nancy Drew problem solver and a whinny little sister. When she’s the responsible member of the pair, she helps keep Everett on the rails and grounds the story. Unfortunately, her feckless little sister persona comes out at odd moments just to move the plot in places.
I applaud Patterson for his daring use of pacing and camera work. The film alternates between static moments with close-ups and match cuts filled with tension, and fast-paced, long-lasting tracking shots. The latter don’t always land: the tracking shot of Everett relentlessly moving from point of interest to point of interest in the gymnasium can feel like a roller coaster. But when it does land, it’s gorgeous: as Fay and Everett, separated by half a town at their jobs, both look outside to the eerie darkness, the camera speeds off, retracing Everett’s earlier journey in reverse in lush detail and near total silence.
Hiding in the Night.
The Vast of Night wound up overcoming my early frustration to deliver a solid science fiction thriller. There are some problems of the “why would anyone do that?!” variety common to soft science fiction, but they don’t derail the train Patterson sets in motion.
The risks taken in the crafting of the film either pay off or are bold enough that even partial success makes me want to praise them. The Vast of Night tackles a time period not often seen in contemporary film, and uses it to good effect; watching our two leads geek out over current tech (cameras, microphones, radio) and speculate on future tech (maglevs, cell phones) gives the film a fun perspective. Besides the first act’s problems, I found myself really invested in the drama and easily recommend it.