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The Vast of Night requires some degree of trust. Its plot unfolds in an oblique way, to the point where you may not know what is happening until the film’s final minutes. The characters have a peculiar way of speaking—clipped, impatient, mannered—and they never quite say what they feel. What is ultimately rewarding about this film, one of the year’s best, is that the filmmaker puts even more trust in us. Director Andrew Patterson knows he has dynamite on his hands, and reveals the film’s pleasures with the right cocktail of urgency and patience.
This review avoids plot details, and that is in the spirit of the film, as its writers James Montague and Craig W. Sanger use sleight of hand throughout their crisp runtime. It takes place in the 1950s, in a small New Mexico town. How small? When everyone goes to the high school basketball game, the biggest event of the week, all the houses and stores look abandoned. Our entry point is Everett (Jake Horowitz), the town’s DJ and motormouth who is somewhere between friendly and brusque. His friend is Fay (Sierra McCormick), a switchboard operator who hears a strange sound on Everett’s nightly broadcast. She calls him immediately, and together they attempt to investigate the sound’s strange source.
The fast-paced dialogue is a clever way to obscure that not a lot happens in this movie. In fact, the obsession with analog technology suggests this film could unfold like a radio play, like what Orson Welles did with War of the Worlds. There are long stretches that unfold in darkness, with wan pools of light, so Patterson really wants us to listen. The dialogue demands active engagement with what these characters say. Everett constantly conceals what he is thinking, even as he talks a mile a minute. There is a growing sense of acknowledged paranoia—Everett casually mentions that the sound is from a Soviet invasion—except its true source is far more wondrous.
On top of the unique dialogue, The Vast of Night looks terrific. It is immersive in a way that few films achieve, with Patterson and cinematographer M.I. Littin-Menz’s evocative use of light and shadow. There are also some mind-boggling camera movements, including a long take where the camera hurtles from one part of town to another, pausing to regard the basketball game in progress before continuing its speedy pursuit.
Aside from the urgency this shot creates, it also shows that you’re watching the work of natural filmmakers. Comparisons to early Spielberg are easy, particularly because the filmmakers are obsessed with a specific slice of mid-century Americana, although they do not do this stunningly original film justice.
So much of The Vast of Night is about storytelling, and about listening. Fay opens the film as an amateur with her new tape recorder, and Everett demonstrates how to use the device by interviewing whoever happens to pass by. He believes that people are inherently captivating, even if they do not believe it themselves, and there is a repeated line where he says what happens “is good radio.” Later, as he and Fay investigate the sound, there are patient monologues from people who are unafraid to explore its strange implications. The Vast of Night is a nostalgic film that explicitly celebrates the past, but also has the wherewithal to critique it. It’s that good.
The Vast of Night is available to stream starting May 29 on Amazon Prime.