Picture it: small town New Mexico, sometime in the late 1950s. On this particular evening, the whole town is crowded into the high school gym to watch a basketball game. It’s literally standing room only. The players’ shorts are very short; the cheerleaders’ skirts are very long. The town’s streets are all but deserted. The only two people who seem not to be at the game are a couple of intrepid teenagers – fast-talking Fay (Sierra McCormick) is the town’s telephone switchboard operator and charismatic Everett (Jake Horowitz) is hosting a live radio show. Fay is of course very faithfully tuned into the radio program and notices the broadcast is briefly interrupted by a strange audio frequency.
Few witness it of course, most people being at the game, but one man who does calls in with quite a story. He’s heard these tones before. And boy does he have some theories. From there, Fay and Everett get caught up in a night neither will ever forget.
The Vast of Night is a pretentious title for a film eager to live up to that insinuation. Stylistically it’s reminiscent of The Twilight Zone; a retro sci-fi throwback that strains the limits of its (low) budget but proves good ideas trump production value when it comes to building a watchable, suspenseful film. Most of all I enjoyed the dynamic between the two young actors. McCormick in particular has a massive job handling a demanding long take but handles it like a true professional. The two really convey a sense of immediacy that contributes richly to the film’s ominous atmosphere.
Despite some very strong elements, I never quite liked the film as much as I wanted to. I didn’t really enjoy the film’s conceits, or director Andrew Patterson’s self-conscious attempts to use all the tricks in his bag in one go. And some of his choices are just confounding: why the black screen, for example? During a long exchange with a caller during the live radio broadcast, we mostly focus on Everett’s face as he absorbs the story, but sometimes the camera cuts away to…nothing. A totally black, blank screen. And then back to Everett, who continues to listen intently, sitting perfectly still, hardly giving anything away on his face, and then back to black. I’ve thought a long time about this choice and though I’ve come up with a few plausible scenarios, I don’t like any of them. It feels more like a mistake than a choice. Later on in the film, when two people are running across a field, the camera spends multiple lengthy takes focusing on knees down. This is likely a budgetary concern, either the shot cost them enough that they had to use it a little too liberally in order to justify it, or they simply couldn’t afford to show anything that might have happening thighs and above. Either way, I don’t want the line item to be so glaringly apparent on the screen.
What I do want is another film from Patterson, who’s clearly got some potential if he hasn’t already burned all his bridges (one of the items in the film’s IMDB trivia section is a list of all the film festivals who rejected the movie – a particularly ungracious display of privilege from a first-time white, male director, and some pretty juvenile sour grapes), and some better material for McCormick, who deserves to showcase her talent.