Friday, May 29, 2020

Listen to the Skies: THE VAST OF NIGHT

The Vast of Night is a small feature cloaked in the mysteries of twilight and the possibilities of mid-century speculative fiction. It is a confidently hushed work of mood and tone so spare and so careful that I felt myself practically holding my breath lest I break its fragile, entrancing spell. It’s set in a small southwestern town at the tail end of the 1950s, a time when the future was still something imagined with regularity, the promise of technology and research more open to possibilities than closed-off with dystopian alarm. The film takes place all in one night. Most of the town is crowded into the school gymnasium for the big basketball game. This leaves our characters — two cute, bespectacled teens, giddy with energies of curiosity and potential — alone in the darkness that stretches across the horizon. They have jobs to do, he (Jake Horowitz) the only radio station employee on duty, and she (Sierra McCormick), a brisk walk away, manning the town’s switchboard. Their isolation is broken up only by the crackles of static over the airwaves and the pools of brightness under the sparse streetlights, the warble of the music over the radio, and the hushed conversations they have over the lines. They clearly like each other, and have sweet chemistry, but their affection is unspoken subtext behind their teasing interests in each other’s nerdy pursuits. These teens are creatures of small-town comfort and analog habits and the film follows suit, much like the camera tracks along in its long opening sequences. The camera glides down the town’s alleys and sidewalks, through the crowds a block away, and then settles still and attentive as the characters lean intently into the mysteries of the night. The film builds its power over their isolated connection, leaning into sophisticated sound design, layered in like a radio play over the perfectly composed frames that allow for the actors, and the patient pacing, to breathe, inviting you to lean in with them.

It proceeds with slow-drip suspense as the characters find the empty nocturnal streets reason to let imagination run wild. Unless they aren’t imagining things. An unidentifiable signal — bursts of whirring electric something — cuts into the phone lines. It briefly interrupts the radio broadcast. Is something out there? The characters call back and forth from the station to the switchboard, as microphones crackle on, connections are clicked in with a clank, the radio fuzzes and reel-to-reel tapes are futzed with. Each new tactile technological wrinkle — cutting edge for their time — draws them deeper into their wondering, inspired, no doubt, by a prevailing science-speculation urban legend of the time, that the broadcast might be coming from unseen visitors above. First-time director Andrew Patterson sustains a simple story, a tremulous fermata of mysterious tension, stretched across just shy of an hour-and-a-half, without a wink or a smirk, and without tipping its hand. I almost wish it didn’t have to literalize its suggestions in its final moments, but they achieve a haunting inevitability nonetheless. The movie’s subtle showiness — taking in its note-perfect performances and tactfully evocative camera work, and trusting we’ll recognize we’re in sturdy storytelling hands — comes from its reserve, letting its narrative unspool in long phone conversations, half-whispered recollections in dark rooms. It doles out its information with teasing, natural ease, letting its endearing lead characters’ increasing need to know what’s happening develop along with ours. Screenwriters James Montague and Craig W. Sanger somehow sidestep cliche in what could’ve been a familiar story by clinging so tightly to these characters and their moment-to-moment experience, painting in precisely calibrated expressive detail like the best Ray Bradbury short stories or Twilight Zone episodes. It gathers up a haunting power, balanced between period signifiers and the ineffable possibilities in the enormity of the night sky.

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