There’s something in the air on a crisp night in 1950s Cayuga, New Mexico. Sure, there’s excitement as basketball season begins with a game so anticipated that nearly the entirety of this rural town has convened upon the high school’s gymnasium. But then there’s something stranger, a crackle on the phone lines, a light in the skies. In The Vast of Night (2019), this mystery will be cracked wide open by an unlikely pair of amateur detectives. The result is an ode to The Twilight Zone series that is fittingly riveting, exhilaratingly daring, and a whiz-bang technical marvel.
The directorial debut of Andrew Patterson, The Vast of Night follows radio host Everett (Jake Horowitz) and 16-year-old switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) on a wild goose chase around Cayuga, chasing down the cause of the percolating static that’s infected the phone lines. And I do mean follow. Patterson unfurls his film with a series of long takes, some of them exhibiting a performance all the more powerful for its lack of visual interruption, some so impressive in their journeying you can’t help but wonder, “How did they do that?” One of these is a shot that races through the whole of Cayuga, giving us the lay of the land from its major points of interest, but also revealing just how eerily quiet the streets can be.
This means Cayuga is part ghost-town, part playground when Fay calls Everett during his radio show to expose him to the strange sound on her line. From there, the two will take call-ins from a curious veteran with a shocking story, leap into running cars, run into abandoned homes, and journey to interview a reclusive widow who has a personal story about the “people in the sky.” There’s little action in this sci-fi thriller, but it’s not missed thanks in part to the exhilarating urgency of unfurling this story in real time, which binds us to Everett and Fay. For their part, Horowitz and McCormick bring this lean adventure alive with rat-a-tat banter smartly scripted by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger. Together this onscreen pair grounds an earnest intensity that pulls us through some potentially jarring cinematic experiments.
The Vast of Night feels like a Twilight Zone episode in several respects. It’s shot in sepias reminiscent of old black-and-whites, centers around a high concept, and is entirely focused on it’s central sci-fi story with no subplots to it muck up. The film leans into that with its opening, which is a shot of a television boasting the title card “Paradox Theater,” an obviousTwilight Zone analog. Then, the camera pushes into the TV and through, ushering us into the world of Cayuga. Like the best episodes of the original 1950’s series, the filmmaking likewise sucks us into Cayuga. The sound design swarms us with the chirps of crickets, the cheers from the gym, and the squeal of tires on a quiet night. Miguel Ioann Littin Menz’s jaw-dropping cinematography offers a swift tour of the town, setting up the geography and vibe of the place. A walk-and-talk between local big shot Everett and aspiring radio journalist Fay centers on talk of scientific discoveries and top-rate recorders, but gives us a sense of this time and these people. In the early years of the Cold War, new tech and paranoia titillate and terrify. He’s a grounded but enthusiastic mentor to her bright and eager protégé, and both are shackled small town realities yet harbor big time dreams of getting out and far away.
However, it’s not enough for us to be taken into the TV in the opening. Patterson does it again, plucking us out of Cayuga for a moment, reminding us this is a fiction. Then he pushes back in to join Fay at her switchboard, her alert eyes swelling with excitement and fear as her lighting fast hands plug in connections. Later at the radio station, this intrepid first-time director will challenge his audience further. This time he jostles us from the story not through framing but through disconnecting the visual altogether. At the radio station, Fay and Everett are reunited, listening to the astounding account of the aforementioned veteran (Bruce Davis). The man’s voice is weary but driven as he speaks of a suspicious secret assignment from years before. Rather than a flashback that might break us from this time and place, Anderson fades to black. For this section, The Vast of Night is not a film, nor a TV show, but a radio show, inviting its audience to imagine everything described by the disembodied voice without the distraction of visuals.
It’s a bold move, turning your theater entirely dark during a key plot point. Like the long shots and the traveling in and out of TV screens, this device unmoors us briefly. It keeps us uneasy, forcing us to connect to its heroes on an unnervingly visceral level, understanding the excitement and anxiety of what happens when the norms are cast aside without warning. Most films want to submerge you entirely into their narrative, inciting a suspension of disbelief that will make you an unquestioning audience to their spectacle and message. So why does The Vast of Night show us it could do that too, then repeatedly pitch us out of that familiar place of audience submission? I’ll be honest. I’ve been musing over this for days and haven’t settled on an answer. And frankly, it only makes me admire this movie more. Seek out The Vast of Night, and seek out your own answers for its mysteries on screen and beyond.
Kristy Puchko is Film Critic at Riot Material Magazine. Ms. Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). Ms. Puchko is a regular contributor on the Slashfilmcast, and teaches a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com