The Vast of Night
2020, PG-13, 89 min. Directed by Andrew Patterson. Starring Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz, Gail Cronauer, Bruce Davis, Cheyenne Barton, Mark Banik.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., May 29, 2020
Filmmaking is, to a certain degree, about coloring within the lines the filmmaker has set for themselves. Those lines can be tightly defined, formulaic, or ambitious. Yet the greatest leaps are inspired by audacity, by not knowing there should be lines, or not caring about what should be prescribed.
It's part of the lore surrounding The Vast of Night that first-time filmmaker Andrew Patterson made his debut off-the-grid and self-taught in Oklahoma City. That's undoubtedly part of why his period "alien scare" picture doesn't feel like a rehash, or take any safe decisions. Instead, it is breathless and breathtaking, a complete rebuild of an American classic that roars and revs like a new machine.
After all, can there be a more elegant introduction to a Fifties tale of interstellar incursion than setting your story in small-town New Mexico? This isn't Roswell, but neither is it simply bland evocation. The city of Cayuga is everywhere and nowhere: A couple of stop lights, a high school where everyone turns out for the big game of hoops, and a radio station. That's the domain of Everett Sloan (Horowitz), the DJ with a Buddy Holly look who everybody knows and looks to as some kind of vague technical expert on everything. He relishes his position as Cayuga's coolest guy who doesn't play basketball, including being followed around by Fay Crocker, the teen with big ambitions: When she's trained up on the local phone switchboard, she's going to move to one of those big exchanges on the coast.
Right there, right there Patterson grasps the world as it was. Not some modern spin, not making them millennials in thrift store sock-hop cosplay, but real and of the time. Character is defined in quick little beats, like the way Fay has saved up for a new portable tape player but is afraid to use it because it's too nice. Those beats come fast – not expositional but illustrative, as Everett and Fay pinwheel around town on game night, gabbing at a thousand miles an hour (him from a slight sense of superiority, her from youthful excitability). Yet the darkness gains a strange velocity with reports of lights in the sky and strange signals interfering with Everett's show and Fay's switchboard.
Patterson makes daring decisions that could have sabotaged the whole endeavor, like framing the story as an episode of Paradox Theatre, a Twilight Zone-style late-night chiller series that would come in, hazy and grainy, over your antenna. It shouldn't work. It should derail everything, cut through the narrative fibers suspending disbelief. Instead, it serves as a bold shorthand. It also wouldn't work if you didn't believe in the people of Cayuga, or the time period, but he makes it feel so real, in such simple ways. Put aside a tracking shot through the town when Elliot and Fay are split up, which will go down as one of this year's most memorable cinematic moments: There's a long sequence with Fay, in her chair at the phone exchange, simply swapping cables and connecting calls. Patterson leaves the camera static, and nothing overt happens. Yet the tension and momentum that scene creates could jump-start a brand new Hudson Hornet, fresh off the lot. Even in moments like an old woman (Cronauer, capturing a life weighed down with grief) delivering a slow, measured monologue that verges on a Cigarette-Smoking-Man-style info dump, there's a kinetic buzz. Every second is a live wire.
Part Close Encounters of the Third Kind, part American Graffiti, and wholly its own stunning self, The Vast of Night is a debut of captivating weight and ingenuity. The only other first film this year of comparable impact is Cooper Raiff's SXSW-award winner Shithouse, and both carry the same joyous experience of seeing a truly fully-formed talent explode on the scene. It's like watching Trey Edward Shults, or Nia DaCosta, or Joe Swanberg swing for the fences on day one, and send it soaring on their own terms. Patterson has taken the battered path of the UFO scare flick, and sent it soaring to fresh new stars.
The Vast of Night is available on Amazon Prime now.