As I scroll through the endless (but also repetitive) fog of my favorite streaming platforms I can’t help but feel a small sense of dread. The same thoughts, every time. What should I watch? I don’t want to waste 2 hours. Should I check the other app? Paralysis by analysis some might say. And that dread can only be mitigated by a choice. Not any choice. The right choice. Something new? Can’t be last to a cultural trend. A classic film perhaps? One can never be too cultured. Maybe something foreign language? I need to be more worldly. A new series? months worth of content so I can avoid this situation in the future.
And then of course the appeals to authority. No choice made before rapidly typing potential options into a mobile search bar. Tomatometer. IMDB. Box Office Mojo. Netflix top 10. Metacritic. Then again who cares right? You don’t want to be a snob. But let’s be honest, you are a snob. I am. We are. Not because we’re all searching for perfection but rather because we believe somewhere in the palm of our hand lies the answer to one simple question. Am I making the right choice?
How does any of this relate to Andrew Patterson’s directorial debut The Vast of Night? Not because it checks the right boxes above but more importantly this film and Patterson make(s) the right choices.
You may be aware that the film was an indie-darling of 2019 from a new director earning praise on the festival circuit before its subsequent release on Amazon Prime Video in May of this year. Or perhaps you heard of its quaint release at drive-in theaters during lockdown. In any case Patterson’s homage to “b-movies”, the The Twilight Zone , Spielberg and radio-plays has been well received in his debut film The Vast of Night. A lot of buzz for a movie made with less than $1 million budget. I’ll try to explain why.
The film follows two small-town teens in the fictional (1950’s) Cayuga, New Mexico as they slowly unravel a very familiar-feeling mystery. Patterson and cinematographer Litten-Menz take the viewer along a well-executed tracking shot through a high school gymnasium and the town, introducing the two main characters in a sprawling (almost 20-minute) opening scene. The movement is not only mesmerizing but places you firmly in the 50’s setting. The slang, the outfits, cars, etc. all appear to be period-perfect down to the tape recorders used by the student-announcers.
The fast-talking-teen radio DJ Everett, and spunky high school science wiz/switchboard operator Fay, find themselves entranced by a mysterious sound that seems to be disrupting radio signals and phone lines while the rest of the town is occupied by a high school basketball game. When the two decide to air the sound over the radio they are thrust into a plot-line that feels like a mixture of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds.
Evidence of a government cover-up rears its head as Patterson uses hushed radio conversations with a military veteran to set the tone (a particularly effective moment is when the screen fades to black while he reveals the most chilling details). Urgent calls from a handful of people not in attendance at the local game light up Fay’s switchboard about “something in the sky”. And of course a sci-fi story of this kind wouldn’t be complete without creepy stories about past town disappearances and other-worldly encounters.
Patterson is earnest in his references including the film’s opening framing device as an episode of “Paradox Theatre” doubling for the Twilight Zone or the radio station where Everett works being named WOTW (Wells again). Arguably the biggest achievement of the film, of which there are several, is the fact that he does it all in a way that doesn’t feel forced. Reading this you might assume this is a 50’s version of Stranger Things. But Patterson avoids this with a unique visual style, a fitting soundtrack, and an original score that seem appropriate for the setting and time period rather than languishing in the aesthetic of a particular style of cinema or television. To avoid this he doesn’t blow them up like Tarantino would (often larger-than-life). Instead Patterson uses the tropes and then grounds them visually and tonally.
The dialogue is fresh, if a bit drawn out at times, with excellent performances from Sierra McCormick (Fay) and Jake Horowitz (Everett). The characters are believable, interesting, and well developed. Patterson juxtaposes his long takes, flashy camerawork (including another tracking shot that roams through fields, roads, a gym, etc.) and long-dialogue scenes with a neat 90-minute story set over the course of one night in rural New Mexico.
Does the movie have a lot say? Well, not really, which is one of its more common critiques. There are some references to cold war policy, segregation, and vague nods to gender attitudes but no real statements about society or government. No comments about space, time, aliens or the universe that we haven’t seen before. It’s not particularly original or philosophical.
But like many good sci-fi stories it’s more about the people on the ground than the “people in the sky”. At its core the story is about two kids that have out-grown their surroundings and are yearning to leave. Everett, a big fish in a small pond, thinks he’s got things figured out and is forced to confront things he doesn’t quite understand. He loses a bit of that confidence but gains some valuable perspective. Fay seems to have more hope in the future of science and technology than she does in herself. She finds confidence but becomes more weary of the world outside her. It’s far from a new or provocative message, but that’s not really the point. Sometimes the right choice is to tell a simple story very well.
The Vast of Night probably won’t ever be mentioned in the same breathe as movies like Reservoir Dogs or Get Out in terms of directorial debuts and i’m not arguing that it should be. But considering the constraints of this film (a budget under $1 million with no well-known actors) it might be just as impressive.