This shoestring affair manages to eschew most of the clumsy trappings of a low-budget production by keeping things simple and script-heavy. The screenplay, from James Montague and Craig W. Sanger, is light on action but high on tension. The critical speeches delivered by the characters — tales of clandestine military projects and “people in the sky” who can get inside the heads of ordinary citizens — are crafted and paced like finely-tuned campfire ghost stories. We hang on every word. The performances from the spare ensemble are simultaneously stylized and natural, allowing the two central characters to shine as anchors while those who share their eerie encounters (a radio caller, an old widow in town) are able to slowly spool out their spooky yarns.The Vast of Night could easily work as a stage play — or even a radio play, if we’re really digging into the nearly century-old War of the Worlds influences — as so much of it takes place either in the high school gym, the switchboard desk, or the local radio hub. The ’50s era, and the barren burg setting, gives us a town that’s mostly dark at night, with the main source of light emanating from the school as it prepares for the big game. This cloaks the rest of the movie, and the story itself, in a blanket of darkness that rarely even offers up a good clear glimpse of our protagonists’ faces. That, plus Patterson’s choice to kick things off with an ambitious tracking shot that mostly captures Everett (Jake Horowitz) and Fay (Sierra McCormick) from behind creates a palate that’s both dynamic and distant.
Horowitz’s Everett and McCormick’s Fay play kindred chatterbox spirits, like an American Graffiti Mulder and Scully. Both are interested in science and the technology of the time that works to connect and bring people together. Also, both of them plan to, someday, escape the mundane folksiness of Cayuga, NM. Their age difference wouldn’t make a budding romance totally unacceptable, especially for the time, but the script is smart enough to mostly lean away from that and keep things centered, after the first ten minutes, on the strange audio phenomenon Fay hears at the switchboard. The Vast of Night is definitely a knowing nod to a famous decade of schlock sci-fi flicks, but the film itself is a quiet storm. It’s not out for shock and awe, it aims to unsettle and mystify.
The Vast of Night Gallery
The music by Erick Alexander and Jared Bulmer evokes the serenity of Philip Glass while also hinting at the “behind the veil” cosmic lore that America’s southwestern (and more sparsely populated) states been steeped in for almost eighty years. Patterson creates a film that stretches and breathes even while confined to only a handful of locations. It takes a few minutes to get used to the patter, since the characters tend to speak fast and use a distracting (at times) amount of old-timey slang and lingo (some of which sounds made up, in fact), but once Everett and Fay begin their punctuated pairing, as she tests out a new tape recorder during their evening trek to her house, the overall cadence settles and the story starts to nicely build suspense.
The Vast of Night is a humble-yet-striking outing for Patterson, who’s able to create a jittery and jarring vibe with very little. Now that the world of streaming and VOD often includes hugely-budgeted films that would play much better on giant screens (and in the past months, ones that were ultimately meant to), it’s great to see a uniquely stripped-down story like this.
The Vast of Night is a minimal marvel, drawing out fear and anticipation with not much more than a cunning script, stirring performances from its young stars, and the starkness of the dark skies above them. Within it you’ll find a Spielbergian love for sci-fi peppered with a twisted appreciation for negative space and the unknown.