Thriller, rated PG-13, 89 minutes, Amazon Prime, 3 chiles
Something weird this way comes — and keeps on coming — in The Vast of Night. It’s sometime in the 1950s in Cayuga, a fictional New Mexico town filled with deepening shadows, cruising cars, and roaming teenagers. Everyone is heading toward the high school, where girls in saddle shoes will soon cheer boys dribbling across the court. It’s evening again in America, and things are about to get murky and eerie and strange.
A small-scale movie that flexes plenty of filmmaking muscle, The Vast of Night is the story of a town, a country, and an addled state of mind that can feel awfully, aptly familiar. At its center are Fay (Sierra McCormick) and Everett ( Jake Horowitz), his-and-her nerds as well matched as salt-and-pepper shakers. They’re curious, plucky, excitable, and talkative, and each has a night gig: She works as a switchboard operator; he works as a DJ at the local radio station. Which is why they’re not at the game. (They’re friendly with each other, but it’s a relief they’re not romantically inclined.)
Fay is working alone at the switchboard (“number please”) when she first hears the sound, an unidentifiable and scratchy electronic throb. It’s the great whatsit in a progressively odd night punctuated by cryptically dropped calls and flashes of light. At one point, a woman phones in yelling about something, the sky, her land (“we’re going in the cellar”), her strained voice dropping in and out as a dog frantically barks and the sound creepily pulsates. With an increasingly furrowed brow, Fay calls Everett at the station. Deciding that it will make for good radio, he asks her to route it to the station so he can play it on the air, a decision that soon pushes the story into woo-woo terrain.
Making good use of limited resources and a script by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger, director Andrew Patterson sets much of the story in claustrophobic rooms and spaces so open the threat could come from any direction (including above). He has strong support — the score and sound design are exemplary — as well as a feel for how to box characters in and for the spookiness of long nights. The actors add some filigree to their genre types but are consistently upstaged by the superb, supple camerawork. With cinematographer Miguel Ioann Littin-Menz, Patterson turns the camera into an uneasily embodied presence, and when it takes flight so does the movie.
Like Nancy Drew and one of her Hardy Boy pals, Fay and Everett chase down the sound, mirroring our questions and confusion. They track clues and race through the night, and try to piece together a puzzle that remains tantalizingly beyond their grasp. It’s clear that something is out there, but what? Given that it’s the middle of the Cold War, it’s no surprise that Everett bets early on the Soviets, though you may be thinking about another kind of alien invasion. Certainly, the radio station’s call sign — WOTW — set in glowing red letters, suggest that what’s menacing the town is close kin to what panicked souls in 1938 during Orson Welles’ broadcast of The War of the Worlds.
The Vast of Night is heavily front-loaded and begins far stronger than it ends. It opens with the camera prowling toward a TV in an empty living room, where a show in the vein of The Twilight Zone is flickering to a start. “You’re entering the realm between clandestine and forgotten,” a Rod Serling-esque voice promises. And then the strobing blue visuals give way to the denser, more richly colored movie proper, which then takes off like a shot. Like the nod to Welles, this invocation of Serling sets the paranoid stage and also serves as a reminder that one of our greatest national traits is thoroughly freaking ourselves with threats both imagined and real.