Saturday, 20 February 2021

The Vast of Night


Andrew Patterson

2019, USA

Written by Andrew Patterson & Craig W. Sanger


‘The Vast of Night’ is one of those films that subsists on mood and build-up, slow burn character and understatement. This means it won’t appeal to those expecting a more visceral and frightening alien encounter: its works more from the eerie-uncanny angle. It’s like a Robert Altman film mixed with a Fifties no-budget b-movie. And it occasionally pretends to be an episode of some Sixties sci-fi spooker. Indeed, we’re in the realms of ‘The Outer Limits’’ first episode ‘The Galaxy Being’, with something weird being picked up on the airwaves, or microwaves, or whatever… 

The evocation of one night in New Mexico 1950s Americana where the town’s majority are at a baseball game is sumptuous: this is wonderful period stuff that  feels nostalgically right. Straight away, it’s socially busy with our nerdy protagonists talking a mile-a-minute. Our central protagonists are Fay Crocker and Everett Sloan, played so engagingly by Sierra Miller and Jake Horowitz, she with thorough nerdy charm and gusto and he with a just a hint of macho jerky overconfidence in conflict with natural goodness. He is a local radio DJ and she’s a sixteen-year-old switch-board operator who loves to talk about the tremendous scientific developments that will dazzle the future. And one of the treats is how their relationship is of friendship, as kindred spirits, rather than romantic. 

It is quite an audacious opening, throwing the viewer right into the milieu of retro-atmospherics, lengthy gliding takes, constant chatter between characters who know each other already and we’ll just have to keep up. The talk is witty, always conveying character, packed with information, realistic and casual, smart and a delight. And beautifully played. The talk is as wall-to-wall as a play – script Andrew Patterson & Craig W. Sanger - but Patterson’s direction – showy without being disruptive – is wholly cinematic. There are gorgeous wide-screen compositions. As Adam Nayman notes, “The technical proficiency of Patterson’s debut is off the charts.” (Although I would say he credits the Spielberg influence too much: talky humanism and UFO scares were a thing before ‘Close Encounters’.)

Then there is a long-take of Faye working the switchboard and hearing an odd noise and trying to investigate further. Then there is a second long-take where the camera glides from one side town to the other, via going through the basketball game. I am a sucker for such long-takes: the first allows Miller to act her retro glasses off as she talks to various people, pulling and plugging connections on the switchboard, trying to work on the mystery whilst tied to the switchboard and radio. The second long-take is that kind of camerawork and trickery that always pleases me, the bonus being that it has a world-building purpose (here’s the town; here’s where they are geographically from one another). If the latter errs on the side of indulgence, it’s fully congruous to this mood-piece.


The pacing is a rush to figure out what’s happening, a chase. That sets the momentum, giving energy to an otherwise very talky show. There's a perpetual tension that keeps rolling through, even when it stops for compelling story-telling. And all of this leads to a place where they walk right into tragedy and horror. Despite the fun of the retro-sci-fi aliens-above-us, the film is always underpinned by tragedy, right from Billy (Bruce Davis) calling in with his story, through the tale of a child abduction and to the notations of the empty spaces left behind as the town finally comes out of the game. It may be busy on the surface, but it's creepy too.

‘The Vast of Night’ is a treat of a script, performance and characterisation. A wonderful homage to UFO sci-fi with impeccable mood and with just enough bite to accentuate a grounded sadness and terror. It’s jazzy, assured, has a clear love of storytelling, and ultimately haunting.

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