Nominated for 10 awards and the winner 4 trophies from various renowned film festivals, The Vast of Night, a low budget, independent Sci-Fi/Mystery takes place on one momentous night in 1950s New Mexico, centering on a teenaged switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) and a charming radio disc jockey Everett (Jake Horowitz) who detect a bizarre audio frequency that could be in relation to something unidentifiable by science. What this film lacks in its story structure, it makes up for with its cinematic composition. Though one may feel like the opening sequences carry along without a purpose or clear objective, our eyes remain fixated on the air of mystery created by the film’s director Andrew Patterson and its cinematographer M.I. Littin-Menz (Hands of Stone), in anticipation of where the perpetual interchange of discourse between Everett and Fay will take us, and why their channel of constant communication holds significance to the film’s ending.
Despite the films weighty dialogue and information flow that often feels aimless, the cinematic composition is terrific. Right off the bat, we can tell that each shot of this film is composed to show us certain information and withhold other information in strategic manners. The opening scene of the film is inside of a suburban track home in the ‘50s and the camera creepily dollies close to a small tube TV which shows black & white images of a fictional TV show entitled The Vast of Night. We’re taken inside the TV with a dissolve transitioning into the show, except now we’re live, and in color. A degree of uncertainty is presented here as we question whether or not what we’re witnessing is fiction within fiction. Nevertheless, we conclude that we’re watching a movie – within a movie.
We’re taken into a small town at Cayuga High School on the night of a basketball game as Everett walks around the gymnasium in preparation for the spectacle, tipping members of the school band with advice as various students bark random requests from him while he chain smokes cigarettes and attends to their needs. Everett crosses paths with Fay, a young girl holding a sound mixer. Everett walks outside the school grounds through the parking lot teaching Fay how to record interviews, as she and Everett role play while recording loads of dialogue. Though this sound recorder plays a significant part upon the film’s final shot, the opening act spends an excessive length of time setting up this premise without anything happening on-screen to serve the structure of plot. A specific incident typically occurs somewhere between the 10-12 minute mark in any given film, the absence of this beat point suggests that it’s foreign to a formulaic story structure. We’re intrigued enough to stay focused on the screen because of the composition in the cinematography, but the non-stop dialogue between Everett and Fay results in a stream of explanatory discourse and not enough character objective within the first twenty minutes of the film.
Finally, when Fay and Everett part ways, she goes to her job as a switch board operator. The images cut back to the tube TV format in black and white once again, reminding us that this is intrinsically a TV show. What occurs at the 20 minute mark of this film should have happened roughly 8-10 minutes earlier, resulting in precious screen-time being saved in order to produce a film with more fluidity in its pacing. Fay receives a mysterious call with a strange audio frequency on the radio. She sits alone in the board room trapped amid a mystery, communicating with other callers. Fay finally gets a hold of Everett and asks him about the mysterious sound she heard through the board. She plays it for him. In this scene, director Andrew Patterson keeps one close-up going for minutes without a single cut, in addition to multiple times throughout this film, marking it as his signature style in compositional storytelling. Moreover, it doesn’t help that the dialogue exchanged appears bloated with realism, often seeming like we’re listening in on a real life switch board operators’ conversation with an incoming caller. This tactic doesn’t necessarily help the narrative since we’re watching a fictional movie. Film dialogue shouldn’t replicate real-life dialogue; it should service the forward progression of the character’s objectives within the story. But, again, this film makes up for where it lacks, with stunning cinematography and breathtaking direction that navigates through this small town allowing the audience to experience a brilliant display of camera work as if they’re witnessing the events play out in real time.
A very impressive and innovative drone shot travels through several miles of the dark town from Fay’s switchboard room to the High School game in one continuous shot. It enters the gymnasium and onto the court of the basketball game and pans a 360 degree angle in the middle of the game, then travels out through the parking lot, weaving in between the meadows of the town for several more miles until it finds Everett standing outside of his studio smoking a cigarette. This drone shot flows at a low angle travelling through the town as if it’s an unstoppable, invisible force that’s flying in another dimension where humans can’t see, suggesting extra-terrestrial forces are perhaps, spying on the characters. But, without giving any spoilers, the film comes full circle with a payoff of an ending. Depending on how close you’re paying attention to this film – as opposed to merely watching it – you can make sense of the foundation built upon Fay’s sound recorder and the emphasis placed upon it within the first act of the story.
Even though this film runs at the perfect length of 91 minutes – it still feels bloated due to the heavy scenes consisting of unnecessary dialogue. Had the film been cut down even shorter to somewhere between 75-80 minutes, it would have flowed smoother while maintaining the same payoffs. Director Andrew Patterson employs several breathtaking cinematic ideas reminiscent of Brian De Palma’s work in Blow Out (1981) or Snake Eyes (1997). The Vast of Night offers a perspective on the mysteries of the skies and the scientifically unidentified airwaves that have perplexed mankind for several decades. But by placing this story in the 1950s, where unidentifiable objects in the air were first being sighted and seen, it offers a first hand perspective of what it felt like for citizens of that period, should such strange phenomenon’s occur before their eyes and ears. Considering this film was produced at an extremely low budget, it’s a fantastic directorial debut for what it’s worth. And if you pay very close attention to this film, the ending shouldn’t feel ambiguous by any means.
The Vast of Night is available for streaming on Amazon Prime.