The influences behind first time director Andrew Patterson’s The Vast of Night are too various to name, from an opening that makes out that this sci-fi horror mesh is an episode of the original Twilight Zone to a series of monologues reminiscent of old 1950s radio plays, Patterson appreciates the past that got us to this point, with little stops along the way to take in 90s science fiction as well, all the while giving proceedings an optimistic Back to the Future vibe that gleefully carries you through a plot that despite being full of snappy dialogue and whimsical humour, lacks tension until its closing moments.
Set in the New Mexico town of Cayuga during a town basketball game that has garnered the attention of almost the whole town, switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) comes across a strange sound coming across the airwaves as she listens to local radio DJ Everett’s (Jake Horowitz) show. As she starts investigating the noise with Everett’s help, people with strange stories start calling in, leading the two down a path of mystery and suspense as they begin to believe that there might be something nefarious behind this fun little mystery.
The story behind the making of The Vast of Night, while equally entertaining and interesting it its own right (Patterson put up most of the films modest budget himself) gives insight into the singular vision behind the film and the distinctive style that has been born from it. Be it the extended long takes, either resting on the face of a woman recanting a painful memory of the past or an lengthy tracking shot through the small southern town, Patterson’s command of this world is impressive and makes this little bottle story come alive. Take them away and you are still left with a gripping and easy to follow radio show that Everett constantly reminds us would make ‘good radio’. He wasn’t wrong.
Be it the love story buried beneath banal conversations about the future, or the gentle mockery Everett indulges in when Fay goes off on another one of her flights of fancy, every line of brilliantly flowing dialogue serves a purpose outside of what is seen on screen. When Billy (Bruce Davis) calls into the radio show, the camera sets the tone of this story but never really adds anything to a tale interested in piquing our imaginations, taking us outside of the scene we are in. The camera acts almost like the piano track in a silent movie, entertaining and mood enhancing but not entirely necessary. It might sound like a detriment but the difference between sight and sound here and how the two are so often separated only to be brought together again is a narrative trick that Patterson uses to make his story and film utterly spellbinding.
That isn’t to say The Vast of Night manages to pull off this duality perfectly as the picture oddly feels messier towards the end as the mystery keeping the film going comes into focus. While answers to a mystery are expected, it feels almost unnecessary and oddly antithetical to a film so consumed by them. As the shadows illuminate, the picture gets murkier as Fay and Everett’s story gets buried under the increasingly convoluted finale. While Patterson keeps you on the ground thanks to some impressive 1950s authenticity including real switchboards, an old fashioned gymnasium (for which Patterson scoured southern towns for) and dialogue with the tempo of old fashioned screwball comedies, the fiction in the science fiction feels unwanted in a story that works best on the ground, in Cayuga.
Patterson, despite all his influences and fantastical trappings proves that the best story he tells here, is one of young love as Fay and Everett use this adventure as the equivalent of sharing a malt shake at the local diner, an old fashioned courtship hidden in a story ahead of its time. Both McCormick and Horowitz bounce fast paced dialogue off each other while hiding little moments of charm or frustration in the other but most of the time the two are seperated by distance with only a switchboard connecting them and Patterson through some impressive editing still manages to make them seem close. An amalgam of good performances, excellent direction and slick editing makes this film flow, with very little drag, a streamlined love story hidden within a conspiracy thriller.
In the end The Vast of Night is about what is happening in the shadows of small town America but really the story that matters most is the one of underappreciated youth and the inquisitive and inventive nature that not only made this film in the first place but is also visible in the people not acting like everyone else in town, going to a basketball game just because everyone else is. Not only for dreamers, this is a film about thinking for yourself and using your imagination and Patterson with his strong visuals and impressive script makes that very easy indeed.