Written by: Matt Patti | May 28th, 2020
The Vast of Night (Andrew Patterson, 2019) 3½ out of 4 Stars.
Against the backdrop of 1950s America, director Andrew Patterson’s The Vast of Night is a viewing experience unlike any other that I’ve seen. Patterson’s stylized sci-fi mystery managed to evoke a sense of nostalgia in me, even though the 1950s is very much before my time. Through stylistic choices and engaging storytelling, Patterson transports the viewer back in time and makes one feel like they are actually there, alongside his characters, as bewildered as they are, experiencing these events alongside them.
The film takes place in 1950s New Mexico and begins with our two leads, Fay (Sierra McCormick, Pretty Little Stalker) and Everett (Jake Horowitz, Adam Bloom), going to work at their small-town radio station. Fay is the switchboard operator and Everett the DJ. That night, Fay notices a strange frequency coming through the broadcast audio. She alerts Everett, who puts a public invitation out on the air for anyone who might have information about the sound to call in to the station. Many townspeople call in, some noting that they’ve heard that specific sound before. Soon, other strange events begin to happen in the town that night. Fay and Everett scramble around the town for information and soon discover more answers than they were prepared for.
The unique style of this film is something I haven’t experienced much before and is definitely the highlight. Patterson begins the film with a shot of a television screen displaying the title card of a TV show called “Paradox Theater,” which seemingly resembles The Twilight Zone. The show begins, and the camera slowly pushes into the TV screen, the black and white image slowly changing into color, giving us the idea that we are watching a classic TV show. Several times throughout the film, Patterson chooses to zoom out to a TV screen again, the film’s plot now unfolding in a smaller frame, purposely displaying lower-quality image on that screen for a few moments as the plot progresses. There are other moments where Patterson decides to have no image displayed and the entire screen goes black, primarily during moments where Fay and Everett are interviewing a listener on air. This forces the audience to focus on the caller’s story, using our imagination to illustrate the story, in place of flashback inserts. I found these stylistic choices ambitious, refreshing and very engaging, without ever being distracting.
While the artistic choices shine the brightest, the plot is intriguing and the performances are all great, as well. Both compliment the artistic style perfectly. There are many long takes of conversations and stories that characters tell that work well to engage us in the dialogue. The stars do an amazing job of performing these lengthy sequences with long chunks of dialogue without missing a beat. Some may not enjoy the fact that the film employs several long pieces of exposition, but in my opinion, it is the best kind of exposition there is. Fay and Everett interview different people in the town who tell personal stories that seem very real and directly pertain to the main plot. The fact that no flashbacks are used in these long stories makes the viewer use their imagination as if they are reading a book. Everything works together to make the film feel grounded and real even when people are talking about the surreal.
I have very few complaints with this film and everything is executed almost perfectly, but no film is without its flaws. The main issues with the film involve the instances of style over substance. Some scenes are a bit mundane and unextraordinary in substance, but are made up for by the visuals. There are some scenes in which very little happens story-wise, but the cinematography and camera movements make even these interesting. The overly long “one-take” scenes are an accomplishment but sometimes drag on a bit, especially since there are no cutaways, but this is definitely Patterson’s intention and most of these scenes work.
Overall, The Vast of Night is a technical masterpiece and a true ingenious accomplishment of director Patterson’s ambitious vision. Patterson understands that what you can’t see is sometimes creepier and more intriguing than what you can, and capitalizes on this thought. Although the exposition may bother some and the film sometimes borders on style-over-substance, Patterson masterfully executes the atmosphere of a 1950s small town, leaves viewers in suspense while engaged through grounded, yet chilling, stories, and gives us two lead characters that seem real and interact well with each other. I highly recommend this film to anyone and everyone who is looking for a different kind of movie-viewing experience as this film certainly delivers. I think anyone who was alive in the 1950s might like it even more than I do.