Just because you’re going to tell a story people have heard, doesn’t mean you need to tell it the way people know. That seems to be the M.O. for director Andrew Patterson in his debut picture The Vast of Night. A total mash-up of mediums, The Vast of Night uses cinema as the foundational storytelling element with a pinch of stage play and a hearty helping of radio, crafting an experience that is truly unique. Coming off a Jury Prize win at 2019 The Overlook Film Festival and a presentation at the 2019 Slamdance Festival, The Vast of Night was picked up by Amazon Studios for a wide streaming release on Amazon Prime Video. Be prepared before diving into this throwback sci-fi suspense tale: as straight as it is, it’s also incredibly experimental in execution, an aspect that will likely pull in some, while dissuading others.
In the small New Mexico town of Cayuga, switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) and WOTW DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz) set about to work while the rest of the town heads to the high school to root for the local boys. What begins as a typical quiet night gradually shifts into confusion and terror as, first, a strange noise comes in through the switchboard and then over the radio. That would be weird enough, except then reports start coming in of a strange object in the sky. Determined to figure out what’s going on, Fay and Everett go down a rabbit hole of intrigue to discover the truth.
Patterson’s approach to the script written by first-time screenwriters James Montague and Craig W. Sanger is a love letter to the nuclear age of cinema. Those films, filmed during or set in the 1950s, tended to lean into science-fiction, whether it’s advancements in technology, meeting with extraterrestrials, creation of monsters via scientific means, or even explorations of the subconscious. Patterson taps into all of this to make The Vast of Night come alive. As a framing device, Patterson leans hard into a meta-narrative approach, having the first image the audience sees be an audio visualizer dancing on the edges of the screen as the score begins. Then, the audience is shown a living room with what appears to be a Philco Predicta television that the camera pushes in on as a program called “Paradox Theater” begins. The episode it’s playing? The Vast of Night. From this moment forward, everything we see is not happening to real people but to characters in a production. Thanks to outstanding performances from McCormick and Hororwitz, we quickly get lost in the narrative, rapidly becoming invested in the sweet and curious board operator and the fast-talking, smart-aleck DJ. Then, just when the audience is sitting in the palm of his hand, Patterson changes his directorial approach in ways that’s brazen and challenging. (More on that soon.) This styling aims to put the audience right into the stage play, applying pressure onto the audience via the same confusion and concern Fay and Everett feel.
Recreating that classic 1950s vibe requires an interesting combination of cinematography, costuming, set design, performance, and direction. The look of the film largely comes from the work of cinematographer Miguel Ioann Littin Menz (Hands of Stone) who manages to create a consistently hazy, soft lighting look that makes everything appear clear yet just slightly cloudy as if creating a subconscious doubt about what the audience is seeing. Costume designer Jamie Reed nails the era, from the tipped glasses Fay wears to Everett’s vest, the basketball player uniforms and band outfits, all the way to wool-look of the suits the event attendees are wearing. It brings an incredibly authenticity amplified by the sets and performances. Patterson wisely uses a select few locations and, via a rather curious directorial technique, establishes a geography that is easy for the audience to track. Though each location is from a place in Texas subbing for New Mexico, there no specific iconography to challenge the claim and the design work of each location captures the era nicely. Those who have spent any kind of time working in radio will surely feel some nostalgia watching Everett at work. Speaking of Everett, Horowitz seems dropped out of a time warp straight from the 1950s. He and McCormick both, really. Some of this is of course due to the costuming, but it’s their ability to match the cadence and language of the era. McCormick nailing the inquisitive scientifically-mind young women, fascinated by the possibilities of the future, yet she constantly acquiesces to Everett out of a perceived inferiority. Likewise, Hororwitz nails the fast-talking, stuffed-shirt on-air personality that’s after a good show and little else. It makes Everett the ideal central figure for a thriller as he’ll push his way through to get answers, while Fay tags along out of curiosity. Thankfully Paterson presents them as having a mutual affection (of what kind depends on how you read the performances), so the gender dynamic doesn’t come across as particularly dated.
For all the really interesting good, the experimentation is where The Vast of Night may lose some people, including this reviewer. Using the film-as-television-program framing device is really smart in quickly setting up the tone for what’s to come. It’s especially helpful because anyone familiar with Ron Sterling’s “The Twilight Zone” with immediately recognize the homage, while less knowledgeable audiences will at least understand the film is presented within the framework of a television program. This is not the only easter egg in The Vast of Night as things like call letters WOTW, the town’s name of Cayuga, and more possess meanings. Lovely as all this is, where things struggle is when Patterson gets experimental. For instance, in a rather lengthy scene featuring Everett talking to a radio caller presenting answering to the mystery of the sound, the screen cuts to black several times. The intent, it seems, is to harken back to radio dramas, something which The Vast of Night feels like even with images presented. It’s a style trick intended to put the audiences focus on the story coming from the caller, but it, instead, disrupts the focus on the story. Later, in another long take sequence, the camera holds on the storyteller for an extended period. It’s not uncomfortable at all; rather, the audience feels compelled to lean in further. It’s only until Everett asks a question that the angle shifts on the speaker. This sequence doesn’t employ the same disruptive techniques and is far more enthralling as a result. Whether the techniques work for you or not, it’s clear that Patterson has creative ideas to shake-up storytelling. Even the almost Evil Dead-esque “force in the darkness” camera work he utilizes to establish the geography is impressive, even if the placement of the tracking shot seems strange so late into the story proper.
The Vast of Night is an interesting escape that teases answers in a manner reminiscent of radio drama The War of the Worlds, read by Orson Welles in 1938, or the podcast series Welcome to Night Vale, which began in 2012. Whether the mysterious events are explained is less important than the why of it all and that’s where Montague and Sanger’s story gets you. It makes you think that finding an answer will make things clear, make you safe, make you protected from whatever or wherever is originating the strange noise. As Everett and Fay explore the mysteries of the town, journeying ever farther into the vast of night, the darkness threatening to envelope them, answers only lead to more questions. But then, what else do you expect from a story running on a program called “Paradox Theater”?
For more answers on the film, watch the cast and crew take part in a 2019 Toronto International Film Festival Q&A.
Available at select drive-in theaters beginning May 15th, 2020.
Available on Amazon Prime Video beginning May 29th, 2020.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.