Science fiction has evolved so much in its film history that most modern movies try to outdo themselves with eye-popping imagery. But the roots of the genre dealt mainly in the mystery of the unknown, an aspect that is showcased in great fashion in The Vast of Night.
Unabashedly paying homage to The Twilight Zone with a framing device that makes it seem as if the audience is watching a fictional show called Paradox Theater, the film is set in the fictional town of Cayuga, New Mexico, in the 1950s (Whitney, Texas, about two hours north of Austin, stands in for New Mexico). Everett (Jake Horowitz), a radio DJ, and Fay (Sierra McCormick), a telephone switchboard operator, share a love of reel-to-reel tape recordings, and are about to become embroiled in an audio mystery.
While taking calls, Fay hears a strange sound on the line that she also hears coming through Everett’s radio broadcast. The two start investigating the source of the sound, leading them to reports of something strange in the sky, as well as the stories of two knowledgeable older people who have a lot to say on the subject.
Directed by Andrew Patterson and written by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger, who are each making their first feature film, The Vast of Night is one of the more auspicious debuts in recent movie history. For filmmakers with minimal experience, they demonstrate a level of technique that is astonishing. They utilize long tracking shots, swoop in and out of crowded scenes, and more, making each of them look easier than they actually are.
But the film is not about being flashy as, despite being only 90 minutes long, it takes its time setting the tone. A 15-minute opening sequence with ultra-fast conversations lets the audience know exactly the type of film it’s going to be. Montague and Sanger are fond of words; that opening sequence is so wordy that it’s hard to keep up, and they include not one but two sections later in the film where an individual character is given a long stretch to tell what they know.
The film switches between long moments of stillness to periods of breathless activity, a juxtaposition that can play tricks on those not paying attention. A lot of information is imparted in the two lengthy speeches, and it takes some immense concentration to take it all in. Your reward for sitting through it are scenes with great intensity solely emanating from the actors themselves.
Also impressive is the attention to period detail, from the cars to the clothes, all the way down to the style of basketball played in the ‘50s. But the detail goes way beyond that. Everett puts multiple reels on a tape machine in one scene, and the quickness and efficiency of him doing so only comes with the actor and filmmakers wanting to get it just right. Fay’s sister shows up for all of one minute, and with a fantastic combination of writing and acting, you instantaneously know a lot about her and Fay’s relationship.
Horowitz and McCormick are relative unknowns, but they won’t be for long after this film. Each is mesmerizing in their own way, from their accents to their fast-talking to their just-right reactions to news that upends the world of their characters. Only a few other people get notable screen time, but each person in the film is integral in setting the mood.
The Vast of Night is a master class in how to tell a compelling story with an economy of resources. Through stellar writing, great acting, and attention to detail that takes the audience back in time, the film should be considered one of the best of 2020.
The Vast of Night will debut exclusively on Amazon Prime Video on May 29.