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On Amazon Prime: THE VAST OF NIGHT (2020)

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THE VAST OF NIGHT
(US - 2020)

Directed by Andrew Patterson. Written by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger. Cast: Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz, Bruce Davis, Gail Cronauer, Cheyenne Barton, Mark Banik, Gregory Peyton, Adam Dietrich, Mallorie Rodak. (PG-13, 91 mins)

A micro-budgeted Little Movie That Could out of Texas, THE VAST OF NIGHT was shot way back in 2016, with debuting director Andrew Patterson seeing it get rejected for submission by one indie film festival after another. The Slamdance Film Festival finally bit and included it on their 2019 roster and the buzz grew from there. It was picked up by Amazon, who released it to some drive-ins in mid-May, two weeks before its streaming debut. With cinemas closed and new movies at a minimum due to the coronavirus pandemic, THE VAST OF NIGHT is certainly benefiting from a bad situation and likely would've been lost in the shuffle under normal circumstances. It's not quite the genre Insta-Classic of the Week, but it is an affectionate love letter to THE TWILIGHT ZONE from the start, with its very set-up introducing it--accompanied by a Rod Serling-like voiceover--as an episode of a faux TV series called PARADOX THEATER. It's a throwback '70s style sci-fi/paranoia thriller set in the '50s and with the investigative mindset and low-key feel of a podcast, refreshingly done completely straightforward and without any kitsch, irony, affect, or self-conscious awareness that it's an homage.






With shades of THE X FILES and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, as well as Orson Welles'The War of the Worlds radio broadcast, THE VAST OF NIGHT takes place largely in real time with only a minimum of clock-related implausibilities (there is one bit where a lot seems to happen in ten minutes) in the fictional small town of Cayuga, New Mexico. References to Sputnik still being a topic of conversation set it in the vicinity of late 1957 to early 1958, and the entire town is at the high school basketball game except for a few babysitters and people stuck at their jobs. People like 16-year-old science nerd Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick of VFW), who platonically hangs around with fast-talking, chain-smoking WOTW night DJ Everett "The Maverick" Sloan (Jake Horowitz). Fay is working the night shift at the Cayuga switchboard and keeps hearing strange sounds on numerous calls that keep being cut off, or there's no one being on the other line, just a bizarre radio frequency. She's listening to Everett's radio show, which keeps getting interference. A woman calls into the switchboard and says there's a "large object" hovering over property, high above the trees. Everett plays the sound over the radio and asks if anyone who recognizes it could identify it and call in to the show.


It isn't long before he gets a call from Billy (voice of Bruce Davis), a terminally ill, African-American war vet who recognizes the sound from various covert military operations during and after the war. He describes the sounds and how he's "seen things" during his years in the service and that the military would exclusively put black and Latino soldiers on these secret assignments, transporting large objects under cover of night because no one (meaning, white folks) would ever believe them if they talked about it (and like Billy, they were viewed as expendable, and frequently exposed to radiation that's been slowly killing them). The more they listen and the more they investigate--with some key info provided by elderly shut-in Mabel Blanche (Gail Cronauer, delivering a captivating, heartbreaking monologue) with a traumatic secret--the deeper Fay and Everett find themselves in a mystery that's seemingly targeting Cayuga for specific reasons.


Patterson and screenwriters James Montague and Craig W. Sanger take a very minimalist approach with THE VAST OF NIGHT. Indeed, the storyline doesn't really bring anything new to the table for this sort of thing, but there's an admirable discipline to Patterson's technique and a respect for both the genre and its audience. It manages to create captivating sequences with Patterson's love of both long tracking shots (one of them is particularly tricky) and stationary ones, such as the mesmerizing, ten-minute unbroken take with the camera planted on McCormick as she maneuvers her way through switchboard calls and slowly pieces together that something very strange is happening in the sky over Cayuga. The film nails the atmosphere of a small 1950s podunk town, with everyone knowing everyone else and various secondary characters with names like Ethel, Gertie, and Bertsie. The two leads make a likable buddy team, with Patterson unafraid to give them reams of rapid-fire dialogue that both establish their friendship and their short-hand conversation with one another (plus it's hard not to be amused by Fay talking about science journal articles predicting "a car radio with a screen that gives you driving directions" by 1974, or palm-sized "tiny TV telephones with screens on them!" by 2000. There's things you can nitpick (it does seem unlikely, given the story she tells, that the incident Mabel describes from decades ago wouldn't be an urban legend in Cayuga, and that Everett would have no idea who she is even though she lives two blocks from the radio station), but THE VAST OF NIGHT otherwise plays fair, doesn't back itself into corners forcing itself to bullshit its way out, and it's got a hauntingly effective final shot. It's a little too soon to declare it the second coming of PRIMER, but it is an impressive lo-fi debut of a young filmmaker already demonstrating remarkable confidence and discipline, with the period setting and finding areas of Texas that haven't changed all that much in 60 years (probably not as difficult as it sounds), the fashions, and the pristine condition of the vintage switchboard, radio, and analog equipment. How many antique malls, museums, and private collectors did the filmmakers consult and visit to get the things they needed?


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