Andrew Patterson’s The Vast of Night begins inside a bit of a gimmick. Slowly maneuvering towards a television set located in the center of an impeccably decorated 50’s style living room, the film about to unfurl before us is introduced as part of “The Paradox Theatre” . . . an obvious nod to “The Twilight Zone,” with its block lettering and baritone narrator. The camera seeps into the splotchy, black and white images themselves, overtaking them and morphing into the film we’ll watch for the next 90 minutes.
This piece of artifice is quickly forgotten, however. The Vast of Night really doesn’t need itself anchored to anything nostalgic or self-reflexive. In the hands of first-time director Patterson and screenwriters James Montague and Craig Sanger, the film is a blast of creative joy and technical composure that’s alternatively humorous, thrilling and assured. Long sweeping tracking shots and aesthetics aside, the film is also brilliantly acted by its two leads, played by Jake Horowitz and Nancy Drew-like novice Sierra McCormick.
Taking place in virtual real time in a small New Mexico town (with the actual location being the small Texas town of Whitney), we first meet fast-talking, chain-smoking Everett (Horowitz) as he tries to fix an electronic mishap before the big basketball game in town, which is sure to draw everyone for miles around. After wandering around with teenage Fay (McCormick), helping her play with a fancy new tape recorder, the two split up and retire to their respective nighttime destinations — his as a local disc jockey and she to her post as a switchboard operator. Yes, we’re certainly in the 1950s here.
Their dull nocturnal routines are quickly upended when a strange sound begins to wreck havoc on Fay’s switchboard and reports of strange objects in the sky begin to filter in. Enlisting Everett to help, he plays a portion of the sound across his airwaves, which not only elicits several interesting (perhaps crackpot?) caller explanations, but a heart-pumping jaunt around town as the duo try and piece together the weird events happening around them.
Blending together Cold War paranoia (at one point Everett is sure the sound is that of a Soviet invasion) and true B-movie theatrics, The Vast of Night is so good because it not only dilutes all the hallmarks of 50s cinema, but creates its own warm center through Horowitz and McCormick’s wide-eyed performances. They’re totally believable in their roles, asked to banter rapidly in dialogue often found in film noir one minute, and then settle into their scene as the camera just holds on their action and reaction, such as a ten- minute, unbroken sequence that observes Fay pushing and pulling wires from her switchboard in a feeble attempt to piece together the frantic calls. The way she listens and the pitch-perfect rise and fall of tension marks it as one of the great scenes of the year.
The Vast of Night is also compelling for the way it understands the nuance of storytelling. Two different people (one only heard and another glimpsed in half-light like a ghost remembering her past) share their experiences with the sound Everett plays over the radio. While the film is too smart to give credence or denial to either tall tale, these longueurs feel like something forgotten in recent cinema, which is that no amount of CGI or explosions can replace the powerful imagination behind listening to a damn good story. And The Vast of Night packages all this together for maximum impact and signifies, not only a handful of new talents, but that minimalist, low-fi science-fiction can still be done with verve.
The film will open at the Galaxy Drive-In located in Ennis, Texas on Friday May 15. Amazon Studios will begin streaming The Vast of Night on its service beginning May 29.