I love watching debut films, because they are often among the purest distillations of absolute creativity you’re likely to find in the careers of even the most accomplished filmmakers. If you’re making your first movie, odds are you’ve had to find a way to do more with less, to stretch your relatively tiny budget as far as it can possibly go no matter the physical limitations of your sets, cast, and crew. Debut films are often small, but with the right application of craft and pure imaginative power, they can feel vast.
In that regard, Andrew Patterson’s feature film debut “The Vast of Night” is a dazzling success. With minimal locations, a small cast, and a truly spellbinding sense of time and place, this little film transforms into one of the most compelling science fiction stories you’ll see all year.
The film follows two teenagers over the course of a single night (really not much more than a few hours) in a dreamy version of a small town in 1950s New Mexico that’s purposefully filtered through the lens of a “Twilight Zone”-esque fictional TV program called “Paradox Theater.” While nearly everyone else in town is at the local high school basketball game, Fay (Sierra McCormick) and Everett (Jake Horowitz) are headed to work, she at the local telephone switchboard and he at the local radio station. As they settle in for an evening with their respective sets of headphones, Fay notices something strange: A signal cutting first into Everett’s radio broadcast, and then into a phone call from a distressed local woman. When she tells Everett about the sound, he shares her fascination, and puts out a public request for information over the radio. What follows is a series of bizarre encounters, strange phone calls, and a search through the night for the source of a possibly alien transmission.
The film I was most reminded of while watching “The Vast of Night” was not another science fiction story, but instead another brilliant debut with a finely honed sense of craft and pacing: Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Blood Simple.” Like that astonishing first feature film, “The Vast of Night” is unafraid of taking its time. As it opens, the whole town is flocking to the basketball game, and we get to know Everett and Fay through their garden variety interactions with other people, and through Fay’s fascination with the new portable tape recorder she’s carrying around the parking lot. The camera tracks, slow but precise, around this rather idealized portrait of 1950s small-town harmony, and we get to simply live with Everett’s laid-back knowledge and Fay’s eagerness for a little while. Then, when the weird stuff starts to happen, we’re immediately invested in finding out how these two very different teens will react. The script, by Patterson and co-writer Craig W. Sanger, relishes the ability to just let its characters talk for a while, creating a looseness that we tend to associate with life in a rural community already. It’s a trick that appears simple, but is actually quite hard to execute, and “The Vast of Night” nails the transition from comfort to tension seamlessly.
Then there’s the framing device of “Paradox Theater,” which we’re reminded of only sporadically throughout the film but which nevertheless adds a certain layer of magic. A lot filmmakers smear their moves with a thick layer of nostalgia in an effort to appeal to a certain kind of viewer, but “The Vast of Night” isn’t going the simple route here. By making the film into an “episode” of a fictional TV series, Patterson and company are attempting to tell us that they’re not trying to depict a small town in the 1950s as anyone might remember it. It’s not reality. It’s a filter on top of a filter, a few steps removed from reality, and while the film doesn’t spend a long time lingering on that idea, it’s evident in the way “The Vast of Night” is shot. Eerie audio static creeps in here and there, lights seem to appear out of nowhere, and at one point Fay and Everett walk through town accompanied by what appears on camera to be a series of free-floating discs of light in the sky. It’s subtle, but there’s an added layer of magic to “The Vast of Night” and its economic, sparse look at 1950s nostalgia that makes it particularly compelling.
Of course, at the heart of it all McCormick and Horowitz, who are asked to carry the film in numerous scene when the only people they have to talk to are each other. Tasked with rapid-fire, almost Howard Hawksian dialogue and sometimes asked to react to things that the viewer can’t clearly see for themselves, the two young stars prove worthy of the particular brand of sci-fi ambience “The Vast of Night” is trying to portray. Their performances are somehow both exuberant and restrained, funny and taut, light and deep. They’re both phenomenal in this film, and they have to be, because the movie wouldn’t work without them.
“The Vast of Night” is an astonishingly good debut movie that does so much with so little in part because it’s a film that firmly grasps the importance of tone and place in storytelling. It doesn’t wow us because it can pour tons of money into visual effects or other tricks to convey a sense of scope. Instead it casts a spell that gets under our skin just by hinting to us that something exciting is going on out there in the dark, and if we keep watching we just might get a glimpse of it ourselves.
‘The Vast of Night’ is now streaming on Amazon Prime.