Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
THE VAST OF NIGHT
Rated PG-13, 89 minutes
Directed by: Andrew Patterson
It takes a generous 18 minutes to ramp up to THE VAST OF NIGHT’s riveting concept of a spooky sound broadcast from a small New Mexico radio station in the late 1950s. However, once director Andrew Patterson’s fantastical sci-fi mystery gets to that pivot, the story has already reached a point of percolation. He’s perfectly set the mood, acclimating us to a setting and era. The angst-drenched, chilling feeling imparted is similar to a classic TWILIGHT ZONE episode, the WAR OF THE WORLDS radio play, and Spielberg’s CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. Engrossing, rapturous, and consistently entertaining, this feature is masterfully crafted.
Radio DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz, who has the charisma of a Franco brother and a young McConaughey) and plucky switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) are as small town as people can get. They know everybody and their gossip. And the most excitement the town’s ever experienced – as told through the film’s long-running gag – is when a squirrel got into the high school gym and chewed through a wire. Yet, on one fateful night, their world will change forever.
Their night begins like any other: Everett slinging the hits and Fay dealing with the hushed silence of telephone lines thanks to the basketball game across town. But just as their shifts begin, an eerie noise is picked up by the station’s signal, interrupting Everett’s broadcast. Fay’s recorded the sound and it’s not long before they implore the public for help in determining if that disruptive din was man-made or otherworldly.
Screenwriters James Montague and Craig W. Sanger shrewdly utilize a TV show framing device to infuse deep commentary about the power of storytelling. From a technical standpoint, the filmmakers’ Amblin-esque philosophies are reflected in their aesthetic choices and motifs. Patterson’s long, drawn out takes infuse the picture with a gripping sense of tension, drawing in our gaze. There’s a one-shot that’s a total knockout – one that would make Iñárritu shed a single tear. The camera’s slow close-ups when our protagonists are enraptured by the confessions of callers Billy (Bruce Davis) and Mabel (Gail Cronauer) mirror our own sense of being enraptured by these tales. Editing in the sequence where Billy calls into the station with valuable secretive information also earns high marks, denoting a distinct connection between his character metaphorically being in the dark and the audience literally placed in the dark by the filmmakers.
There are a few artistic choices that are mixed in their effectiveness. The two main characters are drawn a little slightly. Their development is lean, which can be both a blessing in its economy and a blight as a missed opportunity for further resonance. The narrative drive eclipses the pair instead of allowing their characters to shine through. The most we learn is that Fay is a little sweet on Everett. But we don’t learn too much about Everett except he’s a pragmatist and not a bubbly, spirited dreamer like Fay, who talks of the future with naiveté and verve. Patterson’s artifice in sequence transitions – which dreamily drift in and out, brilliantly augmenting the tone and the narrative’s allegorical context – might get a little grating for some who may not want the momentum broken up.
THE VAST OF NIGHT is both fresh and familiar in the best of ways. Smartly setting the tale during the fevered paranoia of the Red Scare gives the film the feel of classic sci-fi suspense tales. Yet the innovative stylistic choices put a new spin on the genre, and keep us eager – and terrified – to learn what’s out there in the unknown.
Grade: 4 out of 5
THE VAST OF NIGHT is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.