by Kenny Hedges
What are we really looking for when we talk, at least in metaphor, about the search for alien life? Even The X-Files took 45 minutes or so to ponder such a question, and the popular answer appears to be that we’re desperate to find some version of ourselves out there, some assurance that our species and way of thinking about life has validity beyond the stars. The Vast of Night doesn’t seek to answer such questions beyond what is known, but it certainly has a tight grip on our own terra firma.
And we find that solid ground through a small television screen presenting a Twilight Zone-esque show upon which the film is tonight’s episode. The night in question takes place in the small town of Cayuga, New Mexico circa `1959 on the eve of a much-touted rival high school basketball game. Everett “The Maverick” Sloan (Jake Horowitz) is the local radio DJ/head of what seems to be the town’s local A.V. club. Sloan is wheeling and dealing his way through the game, ensuring the lights stop mysteriously flickering on and off.
It’s to Horowitz and screenwriters James Montague and Craig W. Sanger’s credit that Sloan is so instantly lived-in a character. Sloan would not be out of place in American Graffiti or Happy Days, only with a more wryly developed sense of humour. He sets the bar for the rest of the cast, however sparse, and they all follow suit. Before we’ve even left the gymnasium, the film has somehow earned a sense of community that’s integral to the film’s success. Though the moments we spend with the characters are brief before the plot takes hold, they’re written with the speed and wit or an Aaron Sorkin script with none of the pacing quirks and shot with the same walk-and-talk style.
No one would have guessed that the frantic rush of Sorkin-esque dialogue would perfectly lay over an alien invasion film, but it’s seamless here. It also helps that a lot of the dialogue, be it clear or muffled through some of the most clear-voiced crowds in cinema, is actually funny.
From the gym we follow Fay, the local phone operator who starts getting strange interference. And from there anyone who’s seen a movie in the past century knows what’s coming next. What’s delightfully unexpected is where Patterson decides to play up the tension.
The entire film plays out as though it were one large set, the camera not cutting from location to location but instead gliding through the deserted streets of the town, but the music and quick cuts only start to ratchet up in moments when characters are arguing over what to do next. One of the most thrilling moments doesn’t involve a chase between human and creature, but instead two people racing to the library. When they connect with one another, there is a palpable sense of relief. Then, once again, we’re set adrift in the vastness of small town U.S.A.
But rest assured Patterson and company wear their influences on their sleeve, namedropping Santa Mira (the town in Invasion of the Body Snatchers), giving the radio station call letters WOTW (War of the Worlds) and several other jokey references in tribute to a genre he clearly loves. He approaches the same material with fervor and also with clear hindsight. When a caller into the radio reporting on military tests he had performed on him, he reveals he’s African American – a fact he’s hesitant to announce on the air. It’s not as heavy handed as a lot of films that are currently re-examining that turbulent decade – the result of not bearing the burden of fact that so many period pieces attempt.
The aforementioned television episode opening is the only affectation that The Vast of Night could do without. The film breaks plenty of walls without needing to tap cheekily at the fourth. But it soon takes what was just a visual gag and uses it to cover up what must have been a minimal budget. When characters run between sets, it often cuts to the grainy television footage. There are other camera tricks employed, all skillfully, to evoke maximum panic and fear.
Much of what occurs onscreen is the closest cinematic experience one will have akin to Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio prank. And it’s just as much fun.
It’s not that The Vast of Night is particularly original or groundbreaking; far from it, in fact. It plays off every alien invasion trope imaginable, and most of them – however cliched, payoff on their own merits for the first time in decades. Anyone’s cursory read of the plot will clue them in to the events unfolding. But it’s Night’s own temerity and ambition, on full display throughout, that makes it a thoroughly satisfying experience. That Patterson had the balls to explore the nuances of small town America with such efficiency and grace makes him a clear name to watch out for.
The Vast of Night is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
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