The Vast of Night Review
The reason Steven Spielberg's early films struck a chord with audiences is due to how they transplanted his influences (the B movies and TV adventure serials from decades prior) into an all too recognisable American suburbia. The milieu of sunny but unremarkable small towns, a world away from the big cities where large scale films about creature attacks and alien visitors were supposed to take place, helped make the fantastical seem organic - there’s a reason these films have remained some of the most beloved blockbusters of all time, after all.
Andrew Patterson’s directorial debut doesn’t have many similarities with early Spielberg in terms of tone; framed as an episode of an imaginary sci-fi show called Paradox Theatre, it couldn’t make the Twilight Zone influence on its sleeve any clearer. And yet it never feels like a pastiche, either sincere or winking, of this overriding influence. Like Spielberg and the other populist auteurs who followed in his wake (namely John Carpenter), the true power of The Vast of Night is the sincerity with how it handles its otherworldly premise, and how it prioritises creating a realistic small town America that lends the story a tangibility over the intense thrills characteristic of this genre.
In late 1950s, teenagers Fay (Sierra McCormick) and and Everett (Jake Horowitz) are heading to their jobs as a switchboard operator and local radio DJ respectively. But Fay’s job, helping get Everett’s show out on air, is interrupted by a strange audio signal that overpowers the broadcast. She sends a recording to Everett, who plays it out on air and asks for listeners to get in touch if they know what it is - and soon, the pair find themselves travelling across town to find people who can tell them more about a conspiracy that seems to lead towards the military and a non-human life force.
The weakest moment in The Vast of Night is when it leans too hard on its period setting; a conversation between Fay and Everett about the technological inventions designed to revolutionise life in America by the year 2000 is particularly cringeworthy, the only sequence where James Montague and Craig W. Sanger’s screenplay starts winking at the audience. This is a particular shame because of how evocative the recreation of this period setting is elsewhere. Even the exposition about radio technology specific to the era, which both characters would presumably know due to their jobs anyway, is handled with a bantering naturalism that diverts from the fact Patterson is clearly trying to bring the audience up to speed on certain period details.
One of the reasons it feels so tangible despite the framing device and overbearing winks regarding period details is the casting. In an interview, Patterson said he auditioned approximately 500 people for the two lead roles, finding it difficult to find a professional actor who would attune to the naturalism he was aiming for. The casting of Everett I imagine was particularly taxing; he’s a charming, if cynical, radio presenter who appears to have been transplanted from the Aaron Sorkin universe - Jake Horowitz manages to ground this character without toning down what likely made him such a transfixing figure on the page. As Fay, Sierra McCormick is the perfect counterpart, an audience surrogate due to her increasing fascination with the mystery, but one who feels far too comfortable in this setting to ever appear as such an archetype during the film itself.
Whereas the story is slower paced than you’d expect from a sci-fi tale indebted to the Twilight Zone at its most high concept, driven by the enquiring minds of the characters rather than unrelenting action, there is nothing subtle about Patterson’s directorial choices here. On a low budget, Patterson and cinematographer Miguel Ioann Littin Menz mount multiple long gestating tracking shots that are equal parts Emmanuel Lubezki and Sam Raimi. In the film’s big statement moment, that will make most audiences eager to see what he could create on a larger budget, one take travels from Fay’s switchboard office, across roads and fields, through the school gymnasium, and out back to Everett’s radio studio, the camera zooming across the town’s open spaces like a shot straight out of The Evil Dead. It’s a shame the majority of viewers will be unlikely to see this on the big screen.
The Vast of Night is available to stream via Amazon Prime from May 29th