THE VAST OF NIGHT is available on Amazon Prime.
There’s nothing new in the essentials of THE VAST OF NIGHT, yet everything about it feels unique. It captures small town sleepiness, paranoia, wonder, and fear in a way that hasn’t felt this alive since Spielberg riveted our imaginations with CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. At a budget of what must have been mere pennies, director Andrew Patterson has crafted an intense, brilliant love letter to the act of discovery and all the fascination and terror that comes with it.
Set in an unremarkable small town somewhere in New Mexico, THE VAST OF NIGHT takes place over a few short hours during the night of a high school basketball game. Everett, the biggest fish in the smallest pond, works the radio station in charge of keeping its five listeners entertained. Fay, a ball of smarts and energy latched to his side, works the old switchboard for any stragglers hoping to make a call. As the entire town packs itself into the school gymnasium, strange lights appear in the sky. A crackle shoots through the airwaves and things begin to feel… off.
What follows is too good to spoil, even if it all feels very familiar. Beginning like a pastiche of Robert Altman films, Patterson lets the film linger and take its time as we’re introduced to the small lives of the town in a remarkable opening sequence. The fast paced dialog is downright musical, and the performances, especially from leads Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz, are uniformly terrific. This world feels comforting and lived-in. It’s a dizzying feat of crafting an authentic piece of Americana, replicating a time that probably never existed, but feels authentic in the telling.
As the big game starts and our leads are split to their respective tasks, Patterson again favors long takes in isolated spaces. It’s a deliberate choice made due to budgetary constraints, but one that works in its favor. Like in films such as ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN and THE CONVERSATION, our leads are tethered to aging devices that keep them restrained from the outside world. Through bits and pieces we capture snippets of something that is unfolding, but our only connection to it is in the wide-eyed wonder projected by our cast.
In one stunning scene, Patterson keeps the camera fixed on McCormick’s expressive face for a good ten minutes without cutting as she answers calls through a switchboard. It’s remarkable for two reasons: it’s almost all setup yet it doesn’t feel contrived, and it’s utterly riveting. McCormick is a delight as Fay, constantly questioning things when the world doesn’t work as expected, and her relationship with the awkward yet charming Horowitz sparkles in every scene.
Their dialog is riddled with crackling slang and 50s lingo, some of which has to be invented for the film, and the way the cast overlaps with one another the more excited they get makes everything feel that much more true to life. By the time genre staples like “there’s something in the sky” and “we’re not alone” are uttered, instead of cheesy they feel like a revelation. How Patterson and co. managed to pull this off is beyond me, but it works.
Once things begin to unfold Patterson does allow himself some extravagance. A doozy of a shot sees the picture deliver us across town in a single take, utilizing some extremely crafty methods to give us an all-encompassing understanding of where everything is. It’s unexpected, wild, and just as you think it’s over it surprises you again. What’s better is that the shot isn’t there just to show off. It grounds us in the fine details, allowing us to see the limits of our stage as it sets up every location we’re about to visit.
Patterson has a keen understanding of scope. By focusing on the subjective view of our two heroes, the film is limited in scale but emotionally grand. Because our own imagination allows us to fill in what we don’t see, Patterson pushes the tradition of radio plays like Orson Welles’ WAR OF THE WORLDS into the forefront, often dimming the picture entirely. It’s a film that feels like a play without being stagey.
Combined with the evocative and hair raising score by Eric Alexander and Jared Bulmer and the gorgeous cinematography by M.I. Littin-Menz, THE VAST OF NIGHT is a triumph of independent film. It has the makings of a cult classic and serves as an incredible calling card of a director who lives and breathes cinema.
Years later, maybe a decade or so, people will hold retrospectives of Patterson’s career and point to THE VAST OF NIGHT and say: can you believe how good he was right out the gate?