Thursday, June 11, 2020

Movie Review: The Vast of Night

The Vast of Night **** / *****
Directed by: Andrew Patterson.
Written by: James Montague and Craig W. Sanger.
Starring: Sierra McCormick (Fay Crocker), Jake Horowitz (Everett Sloan), Gail Cronauer (Mabel Blanche), Bruce Davis (Billy - voice), Cheyenne Barton (Bertsie), Mark Banik (Gerald), Gregory Peyton (Benny Wade), Adam Dietrich (Rodkey Oliver), Mallorie Rodak (Susan Oliver), Mollie Milligan (Marjorie Seward), Ingrid Fease (Gretchen Hankins), Brandon Stewart (Sam), Kirk Griffith (Lon Stemmons), Nika Sage McKenna (Daisy Oliver), Brett Brock (Fred Seward), Pam Dougherty (Mrs. McBroom / Winifred / Jane Greer), Lynn Blackburn (Ruth Reynolds), Richard Jackson (Speares), James Mayberry (Renny), Nicolette Doke (Josephine - voice), Grant James (Arlo), Libby Villari (Grace - voice), Gordon Fox (Pruitt), John Gindling (Cavage), Brianna Beasley (Ethel - voice), L.A. Young (Benson). 

The Vast of Night is further proof of that old Roger Ebert adage that a movie “isn’t about what it’s about, it’s about how it’s about it”. The story of The Vast of Night is something you’ve seen before – probably countless times if you are a fan of 1950s science fiction, which is where The Vast of Night positions itself. It takes place over the course of a few hours, in small town America in the 1950s. Sierra (Fay Crocker) is a 16-year-old girl with a fascination for new recording technologies, who also works part time as the town’s switchboard operator. Her friend Everett (Jake Horowitz) has a job as a night DJ for the town’s small radio station. One night, where nearly everyone in town is at a high school basketball game, Fay hears something strange coming out of her radio as she listens to Everett’s show. She lets him know, and the pair begin to investigate just what that sound is – with the help of the weird town eccentrics – those people not at the basketball game, but instead listening to Everett’s strange show. Yes, there will be a line about how “there is something in the sky” above town – as all such stories have. This time however, it feels new and fresh – not just a rehash of the pop culture that director Andrew Patterson and screenwriters James Montague and Craig W. Sanger clearly love so dearly.

The Vast of Night is a low-budget movie – there’s no money for special effects or anything fancy – but this movie doesn’t need it. Director Patterson uses every trick in the book to make the film suspenseful and feel alive. He favors long shots – he will hold a shot on Sierra for seemingly minutes on end as she talks, and tries to figure out the sounds. There is a dynamic tracking shot that pretty much goes through the entire town – showing us all in a few minutes everything we need to know.

Patterson trusts the audience to come to the story, to become involved in it. He doesn’t give you a lot to establish the characters – at least not in the traditional way – we gradually get to know them, just by following them around. He trusts the chemistry between McCormick and Horowitz – not romantic, but something deeper, more interesting. He withholds close-ups until they will actually mean something.

You can probably tell what is going to happen in The Vast of Night from the get-go. The film lets you know what territory we are in with the black and white TV framing device – as if we’re watching an episode of a Twilight Zone style TV show. You’ll likely be reminded of everything from The X-Files to Close Encounters of the Third King during the runtime. That’s remarkable for a film that the director basically funded himself.

The Vast of Night is proof of just what can be done with no money if you’re willing to be inventive and original. The story is old; the way it is told is completely new. This could have easily been little more than a calling card movie – those films filmmakers make on the cheap to show off some skill, and hope someone notices. But it’s way deeper than that – and more astonishing. It isn’t often you see a first feature from a director, and feel like you’ll be watching this director’s films for decades to come. The Vast of Night however is one of those films.

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