There are movies out there that make you feel the weight of whatever event is taking place within them. Then there are movies where the event may be important, but rather than experiencing emotions based on it, the sentiment felt is entirely around the characters themselves. This latter category of film tends to be more intimate, at least it does for this critic, with the viewer pulled closer to the people than the spectacle. “The Vast of Night,” which is premiering this week on Amazon, is definitely part of this the second group and it is wonderful.
A purposefully “Twilight Zone” sort of tale—it even starts with a take on the opening monologue of that TV series—the movie, directed by Andrew Patterson, is about a high schooler who works part time as a telephone switchboard operator, Fay (Sierra McCormick), and a slightly older DJ, Everett (Jake Horowitz), at a small radio station in Cayuga, New Mexico. When the Fay hears weird noises on a telephone line and loses a call, she asks Everett for advice and the two are off on a wild chase.
The audience knows from the start what those noises are going to be—we’ve all seen this sort of tale before and this a movie that has told us up front exactly what it’s riffing—so it’s aliens. There are aliens about. The movie isn’t about our learning that, it’s about watching Fay and Everett piece it out for themselves.
And they do. They do it wonderfully. Even better – we get to watch them as they move forward. Everett interviews a retired military man who calls the station about the noises. The two meet a couple in the street. They visit an old woman at her home. Slowly but surely Fay and Everett string together these improbable elements into the only possible solution, and terrifying as it may be for them, it is a joy for us.
Patterson employs some wonderfully long takes and while a few of them are showy, for the most part they exist to allow Horowitz and McCormick to do their jobs. Simply witnessing how the old telephone switchboards used to work becomes a thing of phenomenal interest in “The Vast of Night.” Fay sits there, pulling one cord, dropping another, answering when a call comes in, and the camera just stays on her. It is completely fascinating. Emotions play out over McCormick’s face and in her voice and it’s mesmerizing.
Early in the movie we are offered a few long takes with a movie camera, ones that are stitched together not to make them appear as one shot, but rather to make them feel perfectly naturally. They serve to set the audience at ease, to situate us in the small town of Cayuga as a big high school basketball game is getting ready to take place. Later, still in Cayuga, the movements of the camera become something otherworldly and unnatural. Cuts also become more rapid. And the changes are discernible. One may not know exactly when the switch takes place, but there it is – something has happened and the world is different.
Perhaps this whole thing is enhanced by the somewhat (but purposefully) foggy visuals. Perhaps, in this case, it is further enhanced watching on a laptop screen rather than a TV, but certainly that is not the only reason it works. It works because it is handled with a sense of confidence, a sense of knowing exactly what is being put on screen, and with two actors who can more than handle the attention the camera gives them.
This is what it all keeps coming back to – “The Vast of Night” not only looks great, but McCormick and Horowitz are why it sings. The two perfectly hit if not the reality of the time period than what a viewer expects of people living then, and they do in ways that make them more approachable rather than less. We know exactly what the story is, what we want is for Fay and Everett to learn and make it out safely.
Definitely watch “The Vast of Night” and find out for yourself. It is on the short side for a feature and more than worth every moment it takes. It is a “Twilight Zone” sort of a tale that lives up to everything one wants from such a story. It is clever and rewatchable and demands to be seen.
photo credit: Amazon Studios