Friday, April 12, 2024

‘The Vast of Night’ is an Impressive Debut

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The Vast of Night is a strange captivating spell of a sci-fi movie. It unfurls like a ball of yarn, slowly revealing itself bit by bit but never enough to truly telegraph what is about to happen. The story may be familiar but how it is presented both in style and tone give it a distinct flavor all its own. 

Andrew Patterson begins the film inside a living room, the camera planted down in the center of the room, with a black and white television playing. The images flicker due to poor reception, while we hear a voice similiar to Rod Serling as he welcomes us to the Paradox Theater. Soon, the camera zooms into the television and the black and white pictures become color and we find ourselves in the small town of Cayuga, New Mexico sometime during the 1950s. 

The Vast of Night is not an episode of The Twilight Zone but it feels like one in all the best ways. Like the show, Patterson finds a way to draw us in as if he’s confiding in us, telling us a story. Patterson and his cameraperson M.I. Littin-Menz plunges us into the world of Cayuga County, guiding us by the hand. The camera follows a young man Everett (Jake Horowitz) as he enters Cayuga High School before a basketball game. 

The whole thing feels as if it’s one shot and though the camera never stops moving it is never distracting. Taking their cues from the likes of Robert Altman or Paul Thomas Anderson, Patterson and Littin-Menz have their camera glide around like a spectral observer and we just happen to be along for a ride. Everett is merely talking to the other town people, their voices echoing in the gymnasium as we overhear bits and pieces of conversation. 

Everett learns he’s been called because there seems to be an issue with the electricity. We learn multiple times from different people that the last time something like this happened it was a squirrel. It is clear from the start that this time it is no squirrel, and by the time The Vast of Night is over it is easy to wonder if there ever was a squirrel. 

Littin-Menz camera work works in perfect harmony with the script by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger. Montague and Sanger use dialogue like music, filling the frames with people talking and conversing but they are careful never to make it seem cacophonous. The dialogue has a character and a rhythm in a way so many modern movies lack. Peppered with slang and colloquialisms, the dialogue in The Vast of Night sounds as if it could be from an old-timey radio play at times. 

Considering how much Montague and Sanger talk about radios and how much of the conversations happen over radio and phones, that’s not wholly out of line. But combined with Littin-Menz’s camera work and Patterson’s sure hand, the result is spellbinding. The story itself is straight out of old radio or old television but Patterson presents it as pure cinema. 

The Vast of Night crackles and pops, its sound design is pristine, catching every click and clack of the knobs and reels as they spin and stop. Everett and Fay (Sierra McCormick) banter about her new tape recorder as they make their way through the crowd. The two are the sole stars of the film. Though there are other characters, we spend most of the time observing Everett and Fay slowly begin to realize that while everyone in town seems to be at the basketball game, there’s something in the sky, and it may have been here before. 

I mentioned earlier that the film started out with images on a black and white television. Throughout the film Patterson returns to that same television, showing us what is happening, only on T.V. as opposed to film. Sometimes, the screen will go pitch black as if we’ve lost reception, but the sound comes in clear as a bell. The Vast of Night may be an old, familiar tale but the way it’s being told is just kooky and hypnotic enough to make it all seem exhilarating and new. 

If all of that wasn’t enough The Vast of Night finds little ways to set itself apart. For example, when Fay hears a strange sound on her switchboard, she calls Everett to ask him if he’s ever heard anything like it before. They record the sound and broadcast it asking anyone listening if they can identify it. 

UFO stories have a way of exposing our fear of the unknown and our inbred prejudices. While playing the mysterious sounds, Fay gets a call from an old man Billy (Bruce Davis). He tells about his time in the army and how he’d heard the sound before. Davis’s voice is rich and evocative as he begins to tell about his life. Then we learn that Billy is Black.  

Though we never see Davis, he almost steals the show with his voice work alone. Which is saying something considering how completely and utterly both Horowitz and McCormick capture our attention. The acting in The Vast of Night is the type of acting that walks the line of theatrical and the subdued. So much of the film is either Everett and Fay partially shrouded in shadows as they walk the dark lonely streets of Cayuga or sitting and just listening. 

Billy apologies for not saying so from the beginning. He tells Everett if he wants to hang up, he’ll understand. It’s a small moment but it highlights and reminds us that while Black people existed in the 50’s, they were not welcome on the radios unless they could sing or dance. Patterson highlights the racism of the prejudices of the time in other ways as well.  

As Fay is talking to the Switchboard Operator from the shift before hers, they talk about the upcoming basketball game. Fay says she saw the boys from the other team. “They were getting off the bus, they were tall. They got a bunch of Indian boys on their team, about four or five of them.” A few seconds later she comments “When they put their jerseys on, they looked like grown-ups.” Later on, in the film, Patterson takes us back to the gym, the game in progress and we see the Native boys as the camera sails pass.  

The boys look like boys. So much so that we wonder how anyone could ever think otherwise. Montague and Sanger subtly show us how many whites rob brown and Black children of their childhood by claiming they look like grownups 

The Vast of Night is aware of the whiteness of its protagonists in a way so few films are. Billy tells Everett that most of the people who he worked with, who have gotten mysteriously sick and have seen the strange round ships in the sky, were largely not white. Everett asks Billy why he thinks that is. “Because nobody listens to us.” 

Patterson packs his scenes with dialogue but the camera is almost never focused on the person talking. Instead, he is focusing on the people listening. The Vast of Night is a film of people sitting and listening and every once and while asking questions. Patterson and his team realize that communication isn’t just about words it’s about the pauses between the words and the tone in which they are spoken. 

Everett and Fay may be interested in the strangers in the sky, Patterson is clearly only interested in the people on the ground and how they relate to each other or try to at any rate. Another caller calls in claiming to know the answer and demands that Everett and Fay come to her. Mabel (Gail Cronauer) recounts the tale of her life as a single mother who lost her child. Again, she speaks of being ignored and brushed aside. 

Eric Alexander and Jared Bulmer’s score is a haunting symphony which mixed with the crickets chirping in the night brought back memories of small old Missouri towns from my childhood. The score never overwhelms, but just because it never asserts itself doesn’t mean it is not effective. The score works in tandem with the sound design creating a mood and an atmosphere that wraps itself around you. 

Part of my love for The Vast of Night comes from how it captures the feeling of a small town. Yes, it takes place in the ’50s but the weird thing about small towns is no matter the time period, they always seem the same. Patterson captures the feel of them without overdoing it and making it seem cliché. Or perhaps, like a poem, it only captures the memory of what they were.

A valid complaint could be made about how The Vast of Night is all style with little meat to sustain it. For all it’s dazzle and pizzaz, it is ultimately a shallow movie. A fact that it is not helped by the lackluster ending. I’d argue, for myself, that the journey was worth the ride even if the destination was somewhat of a letdown. 

One of the benefits of having the usual studio fare postponed is that it allows movies such as The Vast of Night room to breathe. Any other summer and movies such as Patterson’s or Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum would be consumed or drowned out completely. But this is not an average summer, and Patterson’s debut is not your average film. 

Image courtesy of Amazon Studios

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