I watched The Vast of Night in the strange, crackling dark of the 4th of July. I thought it would be a good Americana watch for that night—a small town, 1950s, New Mexico, something in the sky. Just from that, you know what this movie is going to be. But what is so entrancing about The Vast of Night is how unusual its retro feels. It’s a movie with an individual and assured artistic point of view, something that comes out of the look and the score and the pacing that I don’t really know else how to describe besides just with: vibes.
The Vast of Night is small and quiet, warm while still genuinely a little eerie and dark. It’s also dark in the sense that it all happens on one night, which is part of what feels different about this old-style sci-fi. The movie takes place in real-time over 85 minutes, the conceit that it’s bound by the length of the highly-attended first home basketball game of the season, which has left just a small number of people still out and about. Namely our two leads, who are both working tonight: Fay, a teenage switchboard operator, and her somewhat older friend Everett, the town’s young nighttime radio host.
That at times it feels like Fay and Everett might be the only two people in this hushed desert town is just one of the ways first-time filmmaker Andrew Patterson spun atmosphere out the constraints of his micro $700,000 budget. A lot of which he clearly earmarked for good photography, in order to build much of the movie out of these hypnotic ground-level tracking shots (ground-level! again, unusual). If you’ve heard anything about this recent Amazon sleeper release, it’s probably about the one-take where the camera zips off on its own to wind across the empty town, linking the locations of our two main characters in geography and time. But I think my own favorite tracking shot is actually the long sequence that the pleasantly bewildering, quick-tumbling dialogue of the opening scene eventually settles into, where after they split off from the crowd gathering at the gymnasium, we smoothly follow along behind Fay and Everett at about knee height as they walk through the dark to her job at the switchboard, Everett casually teaching her how to conduct an on-the-fly interview on her new tape recorder he carries between them.
These sorts of visuals are integral to the spell of this movie, but the fact that it frequently feels like it could have had life as an audio-only radio drama just speaks to how deeply The Vast of Night understands the matter of its story. The characters really speak like they’re in the ‘50s—or at least I presume, as most of this slang has gone completely out of circulation by 2020—and the naturalistic delivery of this mid-century dialogue is fun & curious to listen to. But the steady, floating movement of the camera in those chattering dialogue scenes also stills into these long moments where we will stay for minutes on end simply watching someone’s face in three-quarter view as they, too, quietly listen to something on the other end of the line. The first of these is over nine minutes long, just Fay alone at her switchboard trying to find an answer for a sound she can’t place, and was also the first time I told this movie aloud: “I like this so much.”
I like that this movie knows I find it wonderful to watch people do technical things with analogue equipment. I like that both leads are wearing these huge glasses that obscure half their face. I like that it’s a period piece that keeps its modern thoughtfulness in the framing, not the characters’ realities—let the movie be the one to think about quite literally giving a platform to historically marginalized voices, while its historical characters remain most concerned about McCarthyism.
And I really, really like this central relationship. It’s clear from the beginning that while Everett is still very young, he’s older than Fay in a way that has social significance. He has a more adult know-how, he’s a young professional, and she’s a high schooler who’s not allowed to let anyone else carry her instrument as it’s on loan from the music teacher. Yet it’s also clear that despite their slightly different ages, they’re friends, in that way that happens in small communities where social spheres Venn diagram a bit more. And all this means that what sounds on paper like it would be so traditional—a guy and girl who are experiencing a Strange Incident that brings them closer together—is playing on a different sort of register here, one that I found endlessly captivating. Profoundly into these two, just really really taken by them.
Things I was less into were only a few, and I think they’re related, and will be increasingly vague about it for those who haven’t seen this yet: the metafilmic framing device used at the beginning and then a few more times throughout is a good-natured apology for being genre that this film absolutely doesn’t need, and I believe that Twilight Zone-esque promise it made led to a certain overreaching in the specificity of a couple things later. That said, the fact that I know exactly what things I would change doesn’t change at all the fact that I love this movie completely.
In closing, there is only one other film I can recall where I also just turned it on to watch again in less than 72 hours, and it too was a small 85-minute real-time piece entirely set at night, so I guess that’s something about me.