Runtime: 89 Minutes
Director: Andrew Patterson
Writer: James Montague, Craig W. Sanger
Stars: Sierra McCormack, Jake Horowitz, Mollie Milligan, Mallorie Rodak, Cheyenne Barton, Brandon Stewart, Gail Cronauer
By Harris Dang
One of the best things this reviewer loves about cinema is the feeling of awe when one is transported into the world of the film. In the time of the current pandemic, the cinema experience is being missed more and more. Some filmgoers would love to venture into something new and otherworldly while other filmgoers would love to venture into something warm, comforting and familiar.
It is quite fitting that of the film under review, “The Vast of Night” (2019), is about the wonder of discovery under tough circumstances. When the film had its first showing at the Slamdance Film Festival in 2019, it premiered to glowingly positive reviews and has now been released earlier than expected on VOD due to the pandemic. Will the film live up to its immense hype?
The story is set in the 1950’s; set in Cayuga, New Mexico. We follow the jubilant switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormack) and the smooth radio DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz); two fresh-faced teenagers who leave a crowded basketball game to walk to work at their nighttime jobs. The two talk about everything including the Cold War, future plans, predicting technological advances and even form impromptu interviews with some of the townspeople until they reach their workplaces.
Once they get into the groove of their work, they notice a particular peculiarity. Radio interference is one thing. Phone calls cutting off is another thing. But a strange sound coming through the line is something else entirely in Fay’s mind. She quickly calls Everett and plays the sound to him but he also does not recognize the sound. Things get even stranger when a few townspeople call in the switchboard; talking about weird occurrences through the outskirts of town. Some would think that this would freak people out; but not Fay and Everett, as it intrigues and inspires them into a journey of wonder and unearthing something out of this world.
“The storytelling is brisk, taut and yet it takes its time in conveying the period setting to the audience, letting them spend time with the characters until the adventure begins.”
Does the film live up to the critical hype? Not only does “The Vast of Night” (2019) end up touching the stars, it is one of the best films of 2020. The storytelling of genre cinema can be approached in a few ways. Half of the time, filmmakers tend to break the rules and subvert audience expectations. While other filmmakers tend to follow the tropes and established aesthetics of the genre.
The story is framed as an episode of “The Twilight Zone” (1959 – 1964), so the filmmakers clearly have their love of sci-fi up their sleeves; showing that the latter route is what director Andrew Patterson and screenwriters James Montague & Craig W. Sanger chose to take. To relish what isn’t broken and bring back what sci-fi cinema used to be before all the bells and whistles of CGI; bringing back adventure stories propelled by cinematic wonder, character and curiosity.
The production values — even on such a low budget — are pitch-perfect in accentuating Patterson’s focus on visual and oral storytelling. The film captures the period details of the 1950’s through the settings (thanks to production design by Adam Dietrich), props (phones, tape recorders, switchboards are believably retro thanks to art direction by Jonathan Rudak) and even dialogue (mentions about tiny T.V. phones amuse).
“The mystery of the origin of the sound manages to be intriguing — exploring Cold War paranoia, military experiments and racism among other things — and it pays off with a 15 minute climax that proves to be satisfying.”
Keeping things simple without the excessive need for artifice, director Patterson opts for long, singular takes (thanks to cinematographer Miguel Ioann Littin Menz and editors Erick Alexander and Jared Bulmer), low lighting (which lends the film a sense of mystery), sound design (the sound department conveys the interstellar noises beautifully, making it easy to believe that the characters would be scared yet still fixated) and monologues (which give the film an immersive and appealing campfire feel). The storytelling is brisk, taut and yet it takes its time in conveying the period setting to the audience, letting them spend time with the characters until the adventure begins.
The lead actors Sierra McCormack and Jake Horowitz are fantastic as the would-be sleuths. McCormack plays the role of Fay with such enthusiastic glee that it proves to be enjoyably infectious; making it easy for the audience to care about her quest. Horowitz is believably affable and confident as Everett; the more sceptical of the pair yet is both interested and enjoying the thrill of the chase.
The mystery of the origin of the sound manages to be intriguing — exploring Cold War paranoia, military experiments and racism among other things — and it pays off with a 15 minute climax that proves to be satisfying and thankfully never didactic or patronising to the audience. For those who are expecting bouts of action will be disappointed; but if the story skewered toward that path, it would have been seen as incongruous to what the film set out to do.
Overall, “The Vast of Night” (2019) is an immaculate, low-key sci-fi period piece that proves to be wonderfully gripping and immersive with how it conveys the thrill of discovery; working within its love of genre with remarkable invention and simplicity; led by a charming lead duo with McCormick and Horowitz. Highly recommended.