The directorial debut is something of a precarious milestone in a filmmaker’s trajectory. In many ways, it can make or break an individual’s career. That said, there’s something spectacular about a really polished, passionately crafted first feature. Andrew Patterson’s sci-fi thriller The Vast of Night is a perfect example of this.
The Vast of Night debuted on the 29th of May 2020 via Amazon Prime, and the title of the film is something of a manifesto. It tells us a lot about how Patterson carefully develops tension through the simplest of means. The story unfolds exclusively at night, where our visual awareness is as limited as our mental perception — there’s just so much that we cannot see, and there’s so much that we do not know. And in the vast of night, something as simple as a sound can be chilling.
Set in a small New Mexican town in the 1950s, it follows Everett (Jake Horowitz), a charismatic, small-town radio host, and Fay (Sierra McCormick), an intrepid switchboard operator. When Fay accidentally intercepts an obscure signal which she cannot trace nor identify, she enlists Everett’s assistance in pursuing the source of the sound. . . which may be extra-terrestrial. With nought but solid performances and a complementary script, the suspenseful narrative builds upon this otherworldly transmission – itself nothing more than an ominous cluster of indiscernible, arhythmic reverberations. Once our two protagonists broadcast the signal through Everett’s local radio station, mysterious individuals come forward to offer their unsettling — and sometimes clandestine — tales that may elucidate the signal’s origin. With every account, the puzzle pieces slot together, yet the picture they portray proves only how little we truly understand. We gradually learn more about the signal, where it may have come from, and what that implies. We’re afforded just enough information to know that there’s something beyond the clouds, but never enough to be absolutely sure.
There’s much to be said of Horowitz and McCormick. Their chemistry is infectious, but as individuals, they’re perfectly capable of carrying long takes without losing your interest. Both of them propel the suspense through their deft performances, and their ability to chew through mouthfuls of mid-century dialect helps the movie succeed where so many lazily-executed period pieces fail.
The greatest compliment I could give to The Vast of Night is that it is so very different from the current cinematic climate. Yes, if you go in expecting a high-octane blockbuster, you’ll be disappointed. There are no explosions or 15-minute chase sequences. Nevertheless, Patterson distinguishes his film by his use of subtlety, dressing the picture more like a Hitchcockian, Cold War thriller with supernatural elements woven in. And if that sounds like the kind of movie you enjoy, you’ll be pressed to find one as brilliant as The Vast of Night.
Before the plot kicks into gear, Patterson lingers passionately on the small-town setting. He intricately develops the local area through extensive long shots that fixate on every relationship, no matter how small – from rocky marriages to school staff, etc. I can imagine some viewers thinking this is a slow start, or at worst, a boring start, but I assure you that it is essential. Each of these tracking shots is delivered with enough finesse to mask the film’s tiny budget, but they aren’t showy or unimportant. These long shots allow us to traverse this close-knit community while mirroring the stability of its suburban life. Upon the arrival of the mysterious signal, the gradual implementation of choppy editing and shorter cuts disrupts the stability of the long takes much as the extra-terrestrial life disrupts the stability of small-town suburbia.
Truly, it is the movie’s exceptional presentation which allows Patterson to do so much with so little. In the beginning, for instance, the abundance of long shots frames the characters within their isolated surrounding community. As the possibility of extra-terrestrial life intensifies, these long shots begin to feel a lot more alienating. Large pools of shadow swallow up our protagonists in desolate negative space, constantly reminding us that they — and we — are but a small part of a universe so much bigger than we could imagine. And this realisation is frankly terrifying.