The Vast of Night (2019)

The Vast of Night is mediated, and somebody is watching.

Framed as a monochrome episode on Paradox Theater, a Twilight Zone-like television show “found only in a frequency caught between logic and myth”, and set in (fictive) Cayuga, New Mexico in the 1950s, Andrew Patterson’s accomplished feature debut follows two young people who work in communications – 16-year-old Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick) helps run the local telephone exchange, Everett (Jake Horowitz) is a smooth-tongued radio DJ – and who are looking towards bigger, better prospects than small-town Cayuga can offer. As the rest of the townsfolk assemble one night to watch a high-school basketball game against regional rivals, Fay and Everett walk together to their workplaces, discussing a future of radio-controlled cars, super-fast vacuum-tube transportation and palm-sized telephones with (colour!) television screens – a future that is part pure fantasy, and part our own present. Both are interested in technology, mobility and media – and when they pick up a strange signal across the airwaves, they know instinctively that this story may be their ticket out of their limited environment.

Fay and Everett are what might be called progressive. Everett is open to otherness, welcoming the first ever black caller onto his show (in a conspicuously all-white town). Fay has recently purchased a new-fangled tape recorder, and is always running – although Everett keeps intercepting her speeding motions and swooping her into his even faster (borrowed) car. While their curiosity and forward-facing momentum will lead to ever closer encounters over this long dark night, their efforts also capture the outward- and upward-looking ambitions of people driven to escape the confines of their immediate microculture.

About half an hour into the narrative, a bravura single take – impossibly sinuous and eerily disembodied – tracks from Fay at the telephone exchange to the crowd at the school basketball game to Everett at the radio shack, mapping out both the town’s intimate interconnectedness and its parochial purview (while Fay and Everett look out and listen, the rest of the town is distracted). Cayuga is a place of gossip and secrets, full of crosstalk, misunderstood lines and ‘connection issues’ – and Fay and Everett’s efforts to transmit the received phantom signals represent an instinct to grasp beyond one’s narrow orbit and to reach out through the ether to whoever might be seeking contact from beyond. 

Constructed with convincing period detail, this fast-talking mystery elegantly crossfades between B sci-fi tropes, Cold War paranoia and Area 51 intrigue, without ever taking an eye off its grounded characters even as they look up to the skies.

© Anton Bitel