' ' Cinema Romantico: The Vast of Night

Monday, August 03, 2020

The Vast of Night

“The Vast of Night”, a new release streaming on Amazon Prime, is director Andrew Patterson’s feature film debut, remarkable considering the visual virtuosity and cohesive vision. Though borrowing from myriad genres like serialized 1950s TV, sci-fi movies, even radio dramas, it is no purposeless pastiche, a haunting film less about an alien invasion than an alien presence, one undetected except by the people willing to listen. It is uncovered by a couple small-town locals, switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) and radio deejay Everett (Jake Horowitz), who in one breathless shot are essentially connected despite being at different spots in their small town. As Fay sets foot outside her place of work, the camera seems to fly, through the street and then into the gymnasium where everyone has gathered for the first basketball game of the year before moving on, concluding at Everett’s radio station. This is no long take for it’s own sake but an evocation of their connection, holding fast no matter what, and sensing the world’s strange rhythms to which everyone else in town remains oblivious.

“The Vast of Night” opens with an extended walk and talk sequence between Fay and Everett that goes into the gymnasium, around it, back out if it, and through the quiet town. There is a lot of walking. But there is also a lot of talking. Everett talks and talks and talks. Horowitz, with his height and horn-rimmed glasses but also slightly pompous, “let me explain this to you”, air suggests Paul Pfeiffer of “The Wonder Years” crossed with Max Fischer of “Rushmore.” It might be too much if Horowitz did not exude his own distinct charisma, emanating from those whiffs of smoke from the cigarette he brashly keeps smoking inside the gym, and if McCormick did not play so impeccably off him. She is not similarly brash but has her own propulsive energy, clinging to him as they keep walking and just sort of joyfully talking right over any of the verbal jabs that Everett throws back. She’s not trying to keep up with him; she is keeping up with him. And we, in turn, are trying to keep up with them, the camera trailing as he walks to her to work. And it’s there, working the switchboard, that she first detects the eerie sound coming through the phone line and then gets calls from people claiming to see something in the sky.

Fays call Everett and the two of them, from their opposite posts across town, work together through the phone line to try and figure out what’s going on, taking a call from someone (Bruce Davis) claiming to be ex-military with inside knowledge of the noise. This prompts Fay and Everett to re-unite, following a trail of clues across town and to an elderly woman, Mabel (Gail Cronauer), who explains what she thinks happened to her disappeared son. In these moments, “The Vast of Night” honors its radio drama roots, the camera patiently listening, though not quite sitting still, drifting in closely, either as Everett and Fay quietly listen or as Mabel speaks, mirroring how the quiet but critical tone of the words can imperceptibly reel us in. And while Patterson frequently utilizes silence to effectively underline these moments, in others, where the action spills outside and the characters look to the sky, Erick Alexander and Jared Bulmer’s score epitomizes a simultaneous feeling of exhilaration and terror.

Patterson does not just evoke an old sci-fi TV show in the “The Vast of the Night”, he essentially makes the movie one, illustrated in the opening where the camera wanders through a home, finding an era-appropriate television set airing The Vast of the Night as an episode of a show called Paradox Theater Hour. For a moment, we just watch the movie on the TV, as if the house is ours and so is the television set, before the camera moves closer and closer to the TV and then virtually disappears into it. Occasionally, however, in the middle of the movie, the camera ineffably retreats and we are once again outside that television set, reminding us the events all are just a fantasy, before the camera seems to merge once again with the television screen. After the third or fourth time this device is repeated, however, the camera goes back in and never comes back out, not trapping us but mimicking that sensation when the program becomes, shall we say, so real that it sweeps up and carries us away. Indeed, if the closing bout of special effects feel like overkill, a betrayal of the film’s mining suspense from what we can’t see, the closing shot honors that overarching idea anyway. The characters, it seemed to me, were literally swept up too.

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