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  • Writer's pictureMartin Vaux

Film Review: The Vast of Night (2020)

In this outstanding period sci-fi thriller, strange sounds infect the airwaves of a small town in 1950s America, prompting two teenagers to set about unravelling the mystery in real-time…

If you are anything like me, you have found 2020 to be a frustrating year for film. With cinemas largely closed and dozens of movies delayed, I have really missed having great new releases about which to enthuse.

Thankfully, in The Vast of Night I have found just such a film.

Available now for free with an Amazon Prime membership, the movie is framed by a zoom in and out from a black-and-white 1950s TV; we are taken into “Paradox Theater” – a kind of Twilight Zone serial – through which we meet Everett, a fast-talking 50’s nerd who is killing time, waiting for his evening radio show to begin.

When we meet Everett (played by newcomer Jake Horowitz) he is smoking compulsively, surrounded by townsfolk filing into the high school gym, anticipating the first basketball game of the season.

The electrics are on the blink in the hall, and nobody can quite figure out why…

Soon Everett is joined by a friend, Fay (played by Sierra McCormick), who is a science nerd keen to understand how her new tape recorder works; the two talk about the future, technological discoveries, and mock the McCarthy witch trials as they make their way to their jobs.

Shot in long, fun, artful takes, with popping dialogue and pulpy style, the film opens charmingly. It is full of teenagers being earnest, sarcastic and fun, killing time in a boring town from which they want to escape.

Then, however, when the pair parts company, and Everett begins his broadcast and Fay starts her shift at the town’s telephone switch board, a noise comes over the airwaves – an eerie, sputtering static hum and buzz that neither of the children can explain.

From there on, the film slides sideways and takes you on a thrilling journey towards the strange.

Excitingly, the movie barely cuts, with all of its action taking place while the basketball game is taking place across town. Almost everyone Everett and Fay knows is at the gym, watching the match, meaning they have the run of empty summer streets.

The duo set about trying to understand the source of the noise, aided by enigmatic callers to Everett’s radio show – crackpots or not – while a few people not watching the basketball start to report lights in the sky outside town…

Written and directed by Oklahoma native Andrew Patterson, it is hard to believe that The Vast of Night is a debut feature. Certainly, the film has indie sensibilities – Horowitz is perhaps not quite 100% convincing as a 1950s male in a couple of close-ups, and one conversation is slightly less imaginatively captured than it might have been, but evidently the movie was made cheaply and quickly, and these are minor quibbles.

Elsewhere however, there is staggering imagination on show during the run-time, with the camera moving fluidly and excitingly through long, sometimes nail-biting, takes. The editing is incredible, and a few ingenious moments of total screen darkness pack a huge punch, too. It’s a real masterclass in independent film-making, and I have never seen anything quite like it.

Thankfully, all of these stylish flourishes are underpinned by an incredible understanding of genre and form. The film evokes the classics, including Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Quiz Show, and more esoteric films like Berberian Sound Studio and Pontypool – all the while walking a tightrope that keeps the action grounded in the world of 50s pulp science fiction.

It never quite tips over into horror, but for a film all about communication it does have some scary, unsettling things to say that feel incredibly apropos in our current political environment.

All in all, it’s a gripping, thrilling 90 minutes – one that is, in essence, three conversations sewn together by travelling shots on foot or by car. But crikey, it’s urgent filmmaking, discussing race, gender, class and politics in subtle, evocative, cunning ways.

As such, if you are looking for a quiet sci-fi thriller then you need to check it out. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine how The Vast of Night might have done what it sets out to any better than it did.

In my mind, it sits comfortably alongside something like George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead – not only as it’s soaked - nay, marinaded - in genre but because it is an imperative film made by an auteur on the rise.

High praise? Absolutely. You gotta see it!

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