THE VAST OF NIGHT (2019)
Starring Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz, Gail Cronauer, Cheyenne Barton, Gregory Peyton, Mallorie Rodak, Mollie Milligan, Ingrid Fease, Brandon Stewart, Kirk Griffith, Nika Sage McKenna, Brett Brock, Pam Dougherty, Lynn Blackburn, Richard Jackson, James Mayberry, Grant James, and the voices of Bruce Davis, Nicolette Doke and Libby Villari.
Screenplay by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger.
Directed by Andrew Patterson.
Distributed by Amazon Studios. 89 minutes. Not Rated.
I first saw The Vast of Night at the 2019 Philadelphia Film Festival. Now, not even six months later, the idea of going to a film festival feels as nostalgically fantastical as this smart, funny, charming, and just slightly paranoid little thriller about an alien visitation of a small town in New Mexico in 1959.
The Vast of Night is the type of little labor of love that may have slipped through the cracks in a pre-Covid-19 world. Now, however, impressive little indies like this are not getting muscled out of the spotlight by all the blockbusters, most of which are on indefinite hold until theaters can reopen. The Vast of Night would have never gotten more than a cursory run in cinemas. In fact, even when I saw it at the PFF it was already slated for eventual release on Amazon Prime, where it is finally landing.
To paraphrase the little boy in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a thematically similar but much higher budget (and somewhat more hopeful) classic film about space creatures visiting the Earth: The Vast of Night can come and play now.
And play is a good term for the film, a nuanced and loving look at 1950s and 60s genre filmmaking. The film is even framed as an episode of a fictional Twilight Zone-esque series called Paradox Theater and several scenes are filmed in grainy black-and-white and transmitted on a vintage television set.
Structurally the film in fascinating, made up of lots of long, lingering panning shots of people walking and talking over long distances, with the camera following and eavesdropping on the characters. In fact, one extended tracking shot is a thrilling piece of smart technical filmmaking. The camera rushes forward, not specifically focusing on any particular characters, just floating across town, passing homes, stores and cars, going down little side streets, briefly swooping into the high school gym to watch the big basketball game, continuing on its journey until it comes to a stop in the woods.
The dialogue – in which characters discuss such “far out” potential future developments as cell phones and vacuum tube travel technology – is done with a loving and knowing wink. The Vast of Night enjoys tweaking the Father Knows Best innocence of Eisenhower’s America, showing a time that was sweet, seductive, and didn’t really exist for most people. It also shows a hungry fascination with technology for a better world. Little things like reel-to-reel tape recorders, radio, black and white television, and early telephone operator switchboards feel like miracles to these characters.
The story is simple and familiar as it is fun. In a small town in New Mexico, on the night of the big game, a teenaged radio disk jockey (Jake Horowitz) and telephone operator (Sierra McCormick) start hearing odd sounds and hearing about strange occurrences throughout town. As they race around town trying to find out what is going on, more and more people are talking about “something in the sky.”
They search for evidence while he doesn’t totally believe anything is happening. (He is much more cynical than his sweetly naïve compatriot.) However, as more and more unexplainable things happen throughout the night, both come to realize that the world is much vaster and more unexplainable than they ever imagined.
Due to the low-tech filming and subtle effects, The Vast of Night plays just as well on a TV screen as it did when I saw it at the festival on the big screen. If you ever get the chance to see it in a theater – when there are theaters again – that would be worth the experience.
It is also playing a limited run in drive-in theaters around the country – which are definitely a fit for the film’s old-school feel. So, you may want to check it out if there are still any drive-ins around you. (And honestly, one of the few small positives of the pandemic may be the resurrection of drive-ins movies.)
However, it works just as well, in fact may even get a bit of paranoid intimacy, watching it at home in the dark.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2020 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: May 29, 2019.