Film: The Vast of Night

Looking back on The Vast of Night (2019), one could reflect that it is both a modest, low-budget effort and an ambitious one that makes the most of its evident limitations. Setting the uneven aspects of this throwback SF indie aside—and indeed, there are a few—I would definitely call it a successful, unique offering worth seeking out.

In rural New Mexico in the mid-fifties, an ordinary small-town event is the talk of the town: an important high-school basketball game. But the game isn’t of much interest to our forward-thinking protagonists: Fay (Sierra McCormick), a geeky sixteen-year-old who works as the town’s switchboard operator on the night shift, and Everett (Jake Horowitz), a local disc jockey with dreams of making it big in the world of radio. While the rest of the town attends the game, the two of them walk together to work, enthusiastically discussing recent magazine articles about coming technological advancements. But when they get to work, the weirdness begins: the phone lines act up, and Fay hears bizarre interference over the airwaves that seems to be cutting off her connections to various people around town. Fay enlists Everett’s aide to try and get to the bottom of the mystery, he broadcasts the noise over the radio to solicit information that can help them solve it.

The Vast of Night possesses off-putting elements: namely, a chaotic patter to its period dialogue that makes it difficult to follow, and sluggish sections during which the atmosphere of creeping intrigue tests patience. But overall it’s a sneaky, intelligent movie that pushes nostalgic buttons without losing sight of the moment. One crafty conceit sets the tone: The Vast of Night frames itself as an episode of a fictional TV show called Paradox Theater, unashamedly signaling its obvious Twilight Zone influence. It’s a useful device, in that it establishes the eerie tone required of the plot, while also contributing to the throwback setting and film style. The budget-conscious look serves the story well, even as impressive filmic flourishes crop up from time to time, such as extended drone cinematography that explodes the studio-lot staginess of a fifties TV show by deftly laying out the geography of the town in one breathless, unbroken shot. Meanwhile, the dialogue—while occasionally overwrought—cleverly inserts strategic contemporary relevance. For example, when Fay and Everett talk science and technology, their conversations contain charmingly wild predictive misfires about the world’s present state. And as the mystery deepens, the narrative introduces talking points— Russian incursions, racial injustice, sexist gender politics—that initiate subtle dialogue with our troubled moment in history.

There are moments, every now and then, when The Vast of Night loses command of its pace and voice. But overall, it’s a film that neatly honors an innocent, nostalgic vision of the past, while also deconstructing and challenging it. A clever piece of a cinema.

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