The Vast of Night (2020) Review

The Vast of Night is one of those indie movies shot on a shoestring budget (reportedly cost under US$1 million) that came out of nowhere and made a huge impression. It all began in Slamdance Film Festival back in January 2019, where the movie made its debut and went on to win the Audience Award. From there, the movie made its successful rounds on the festival circuit before it was made available for streaming via (Amazon) Prime Video on May 29.

The success of The Vast of Night lies on its lo-fi but high-concept premise that breaks the convention of a sci-fi movie involving strange things happen in a small town. Co-writer and director Andrew Patterson, a commercial vet making his feature-length debut, chose to tell his story about two 1950s teenagers (Sierra McCormick’s Fay Crocker and Jake Horowitz’s Everett Sloan) discovering something weird is going on in their sleepy (fictional) New Mexico town of Cayuga from a fresh perspective.

And that perspective in question involving the characters spends a large amount of time trying to connect the dots in the confines of two single locations (the switchboard and the radio station). The kind of sci-fi movie that leans heavily on atmosphere and dialogues (in this case, long phone calls to generate an eerie sense of foreboding dread and suspense) than effects-heavy moments commonly seen in such a genre. It was undoubtedly a risky move and could be a turn-off for those have short attention spans paying attention to dialogue-heavy films.

And yet, it works, thanks to Patterson’s sure-handed direction and intriguing storytelling approach that deals with paranoia, conspiracy theory and fear of the unknown. The dialogues are well-written, almost felt like they came straight out of Quentin Tarantino, Aaron Sorkin or even David Mamet’s playbooks minus the constant f-bombs. This is particularly evident during the first 20 minutes or so, utilising the extended walk-and-talk technique seen between Fay and Everett — all mesmerisingly shot in several long takes.

Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick) in a scene from Andrew Patterson's "The Vast of Night".

But Patterson isn’t just content to long talks in his movie. Even with just a micro-budget as his disposal and special effects are kept to a bare minimum, he still manages to find exciting ways to make his otherwise dialogue-heavy sci-fi movie a visually captivating experience. At one point, there’s a long transition sequence shot in a seemingly unbroken take as we follow the camera from out of the door to the geography of the small-town location and the indoor high-school basketball court before ended at the radio station.

The rest of the technical credits, namely the 1950s setting and wardrobe are on point and so do Erick Alexander and Jared Bulmer’s fascinating score that successfully captured the 50s retro vibe of an old-school sci-fi genre. If that’s not enough, Patterson also goes as far as paying a loving homage to Twilight Zone by framing his film in an anthology-like episode, complete with a made-up intro of a TV show called Paradox Theatre.

Then, there’s the cast. The Vast of Night is pretty much a two-person show led by Sierra McCormick (TV’s Curb Your Enthusiasm and Jessie) and Jake Horowitz (TV’s Manifest). The latter reminds me of a young Matthew McConaughey, particularly the way he sounds and speaks as well as nailing his role as a fast-talking, motormouthed radio DJ. Sierra McCormick is just as impressive and both of them share great chemistry together. Another actor worth mentioning here is Bruce Davis, even though he only appears in the voice acting via phone conversation. But it was nevertheless a solid voice work, especially the way he shares his stories about the unexplained phenomena reminiscent of a good old, spooky campfire tale.

The only major gripe I have with The Vast of Night is the eventual big reveal that takes place in the third act. It feels kind of anticlimactic, particularly after all the excellent setup and teases. Still, Andrew Patterson does an overall great job in his feature-length debut as a novice filmmaker. A promising talent to look out for, where I’m keen to see more of his work in the future.

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