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Non-Review Review: The Vast of Night

The Vast of Night is a loving fifties homage, with more than a few contemporary resonances.

The film is structured so as to evoke pulpy science-fiction, opening on a slow push in on an old black-and-white television set airing Paradox Theatre, a show clearly designed to evoke the various fantastical anthology shows modelled after The Twilight Zone. Director Andrew Patterson keeps reminding audiences of this framing device, occasionally pushing out of his narrative on to the grainy distorted television screen and even occasionally cutting to black to underscore the fact that the narrative the audience is watching is being controlled.

Zero to fifties in only ninety minutes!

The premise of The Vast of Night is remarkably straightforward. One summer evening late in the fifties, something strange happens in a New Mexico town. As the bulk of the town gathers for a big basket ball game, only a handful of residents remain at home. Fay dutifully mans the town switchboard, while the charming DJ Everett handles the radio broadcast for the benefit of “the five of you out there listening.” However, his radio show is briefly interrupted by a strange noise, sparking an investigation that leads to somewhere very strange indeed.

The Vast of Night doesn’t really have too many surprises. After all, the basic premise all but suggests an inevitable conclusion: what could possibly be causing strange signals in New Mexico in the late fifties? However, The Vast of Night is elevated by a number of key factors. Patterson brings a very confident and assured direction to the story, making The Vast of Night a very compelling watch given its relatively low budget and tight focus.

Radio gaga.

However, writers James Montague and Craig W. Sanger deserve a great deal of credit for the script. The Vast of Night is a film that takes great pleasure in the trappings of its late fifties setting, and is keenly aware of the context in which its characters operate. “I am not now, nor have I ever been a member of the communist party,” Fay jokingly records into a microphone early in the film, while later events include accounts of the horror of radiation. The Vast of Night is a loving homage to the era in which it is set.

However, more than that, The Vast of Night understands the strange tethers that tie that idealised past to the more complicate present. By its nature, The Vast of Night is a film about hearing and listening. More than that, though, it is a story about the choices that people make in what they choose to hear and who they choose to listen to. It is a film about conversation, about signal, about noise, about cross talk, and about decay. The Vast of Night is a story about the breakdown of communication, and the horrors that unfold in what society tunes out as white noise.

Interview to a kill.

There is an endearing gentleness to The Vast of Night, which reflects Patterson’s confident direction. The Vast of Night is never especially showy or insistent, but it’s notably made up of long takes that involve the characters bantering back and forth in rapid succession. Most of these long takes are relatively understated; the camera and the characters move slowly and leisurely, often stopping in one place for an extended period before moving on. Ironically, this makes them all the more impressive, with Patterson never consciously drawing attention to his work.

The effect of these long slow takes of characters gently ambling and idly talking is to slowly draw the audience in. From the outset, The Vast of Night is a film about the importance of talking. These long takes are filled with rat-tat-tat banter and back-and-forth, as Everett makes his way through town to check in on various bits and pieces. Cigarette in his mouth and sass in his voice, Everett has a smart answer for everything, even as the people around bombard him with dead-end questions and familiar anecdotes.

Dial it back.

There’s something endearingly innocent about the time that Patterson takes in setting up The Vast of Night. The film’s runtime comes to about ninety minutes, but it could easily have been cut down to fit within the hour-long runtime on the recent Twilight Zone reboot. However, Patterson uses that time to capture a sense of the pervasive nostalgia for fifties America, to ease the audience into the shared memory of what that decade was supposed to be.

The opening scenes of The Vast of Night present an almost achingly wholesome glimpse of small-town life, illustrating why the era is such a draw for contemporary America. Everett moves through a world where everybody knows everybody else’s name, and where everybody has at least some idea of everybody else’s business, where entire communities gather together for wholesome sports events, and where a young man and a young woman can wander through the night imaging what wonders the future might hold.

Holding the line.

This is the dream of the fifties, an era of relative stability and prosperity. The United States had just emerged from the Second World War, confident in its own moral righteousness. Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the White House, an embodiment of that triumph. The small town still prospered, yet to be all but erased by the development of the highway system. If there were the seeds of civil and social unrest, they were happening far away. They were just static on the airwaves. The beauty of The Vast of Night is the way it lures the audience into the fantasy.

Of course, the reality of the situation is decidedly more complex. As Everett and Fay discover over the course of the evening, the world is a much messier and much stranger place than it might first appear. The Vast of Night might be set against the backdrop of the fifties, but it has its eye on the present. At one point, wandering together and testing her new recorder, Fay tells Everett about an article she has read on the future including portable telephones with a “miniature television screen.” Everett doesn’t buy that prophecy of “tiny TV telephones.”

Streets ahead.

Everett and Fay imagine what the future might hold for America. Fay imagines self-driving cars and computers that give directions. When Everett asks when they can expect this, Fay responds, “1974, and by 1990 all roads will be electronic.” She also predicts a future in which tiny tubes will allow incredibly fast travel from one place to another. Everett woners how the two ideas reconcile. “Does that mean that whole other thing won’t happen?” he wonders. The Vast of Night suggests that there isn’t one future, but a smorgasbord of possibilities.

Implicit in all of this is a criticism. After all, the audience watching knows that these two utopian futures never came to pass. However, it is quite possible that the audience is watching The Vast of Night on one of those “tiny TV telephones.” Indeed, Montague and Sanger’s script seems very mush attuned to that idea. The Vast of Night is essentially a story about the breakdown of communication and the corruption of signal by noise. It is a story about what happens when people cannot communicate and the horror that spools outwards from that.

Dead air.

Fay and Everett get drawn into an impromptu investigation when Fay hears some odd interference on Everett’s broadcast. Ironically, Everett himself cannot hear the noise because he is on “a closed circuit.” Everett is immediately convinced that it’s just a result of overlapping bandwidth. “Did it sound Mexican, because we cross signals with the station down in Mexico?” he asks. Needless to say, it did not sound Mexican. This sort of cross talk is just a risk of the trade, as Everett explained earlier about the constant recycling of tapes occasionally leading to bleed through.

Sound and voice are hugely important to The Vast of Night. Everett works at an old radio station named “WOTW”, which seems to be an allusion to Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds, itself the source of a cautionary urban legend about the power of mass communication. Everett and Fay are able to launch a pretty effective investigation into that strange noise from their positions at the hub of communications networks; Fay on the switchboard and Everett at the mix table.

Switching over.

As Fay and Everett pry into the noise, they find voices raised from unusual spaces. Their first big breakthrough comes as a result of a caller named “Bill”, who offers his account of a strange military mission where he heard a similar noise. When Everett asks why Bill would talk publicly about this experience, Bill responds that it is enough to finally be heard and listened to. “I suppose part of it is because I’m sick and I’m old, and no one listens to us,” he muses.

The investigation also leads to a strange old lady who lives on the edge of town. Mabel is a shut-in, not even attending that big basketball game that holds the town’s attention. When Everett asks if they can share her story on the radio, she replies, “That’s why I’m telling you.” Mabel is ostracised for being a single mother, raising her child out of wedlock. “A few people were nice,” she admits, “but mostly I was on my own with him.” Like Bill, there’s a sense in which Mabel just wants to be heard.

On the record.

There’s something very moving in all of this, which recalls the old stories about late night radio like Coast to Coast A.M., which seemed to serve in part as a place where fringe and marginalised voices could receive a fair and compassionate hearing. The Vast of Night suggests that there is some catharsis in Bill and Mabel’s ability to finally be heard, to have their voices acknowledged and their stories broadcast. The Vast of Night doubles down on this. At one point during Bill’s monologue, it blacks out the screen so as to force the audience to focus on his voice.

There is something very timely about this. The Vast of Night arrives at a point in time where it seems like it is impossible for Americans to meaningfully communicate with one another, to listen to those who need to be heard and to broadcast what needs to be broadcast. There is just too much noise, with people living in bubbles and information frequently getting warped and distorted in transmission and reception. “When I can’t see a face, my perception gets pickled,” remarks kindly old Grace over the phone, hinting at the depersonalisation yet to come.

Reel life problems.

In The Vast of Night, the interruption of that signal is presented as an act of violence. Throughout the film, lines are cut and go dead, conversations are suddenly dropped by disconnects. These mishaps happen at the worst possible times, only serving to further jumble and complicate the communication between these characters. The Vast of Night understands that it is privilege to be heard, and that not all voices are heard equally.

Bill talks about how he has struggled to tell his story because he is black. This contrasts with the ease with which the white townspeople are able to broadcast audio replays of the town basketball game that they all watched the previous evening. When Fay points out the absurdity of giving over airspace to such a broadcast, Everett explains, “They don’t care, they just want to hear their kids’ name on the radio.” In contrast, when Everett asks Bill if there was a reason that only minority soldiers were assigned that covert task, Bill replies, “Who’s gonna listen to us?”

Listening back.

The Vast of Night makes excellent of its locations. Patterson filmed in Whitney Texas, with the community making the entire film crew welcome. There’s an interesting sense of space to the town, emphasised by these long wandering takes. At one point half-way through the film, Patterson stages an impressive journey through the town – a shot that starts as a relaxed riff on Sam Raimi’s work on The Evil Dead and morphs into something from Juan José Campanella The Secret in Their Eyes – to illustrate how connected the entire town is.

However, The Vast of Night repeatedly suggests that this sense of community and togetherness is largely derived in response to the alienation of others. Recounting the story of a train full of people that mysteriously disappeared at the turn of the century, Mabel explains, “Everyone assumed the Apaches took them.” At its core, The Vast of Night is a story about what it’s like to be on the outside looking in. Although Fay and Everett know that the townspeople are all at the game, they wander through most of the film seeming like the only people in the world.

Station keeping.

There’s something very wry and very self-aware in all of this, with Patterson consciously and literally pulling the audience out of the narrative at various points – disrupting the signal, cutting to black, distorting the image. The idea is to suggest that the audience watching The Vast of Night is just as prone to these sorts of lacunas and distortions as the characters within the film, if not moreso. It is a canny way of underscoring the film’s central themes and ideas.

There’s something very timely and very powerful in this story of disconnect, in this science-fiction allegory about the challenges of discerning meaning from noise, of discerning intent from cross talk and bleed through. The Vast of Night feels like something of a twilight story, a story told in the weird overlapping space between dream and nightmare, between nostalgia and understanding. It is a film that finds contemporary resonance in a story anchored in its fifties sensibilities.

In darkness dwells.

The Vast of Night is vastly impressive.

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