Director – Andrew Patterson – 2019 – US – Cert. 12 – 91m
A radio DJ and a young switchboard operator discover strange noises in the ether which may possibly be of great significance to the small US town where they live in the fifties – on Amazon Prime since Friday, May 29th 2020
Bookended with a curious and somewhat redundant framing device which sets up an episode of black & white, fifties TV show Paradox Theater called The Vast Of Night, to which the otherwise colour film periodically and pointless returns from time to time, this is an enigmatic little tale set in the small rural US town of Cayuga where the local high school is set to host a basketball team for a match.
Older teenager Everett (Jake Horowitz) is trying to sort out technical problems before the game gets under way: Sam reminds him that last time this happened, it was a squirrel that had chewed through a wire and the wire was still in its mouth. This story seems to crop up every few minutes as yet another character relates their own abridged telling of it. And 16 year old Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick) wants him to show her how the tape recorder she’s just bought works.
All this and more happens as the camera follows Everett across the gym hall sports floor, back and forth, down to where a bunch of men are trying to fix the electrical problem, back up again, with Patterson all the while executing the whole thing with dizzying choreography that shows off to the full all the sets in which the action takes place.
Indeed. that’s one of the many pleasures of this film, the way it follows such seemingly mundane action to give a very real and physical sense of place and places. Another is its effortlessly written and completely captivating dialogue and the interplay between the actors as they speak it and bring it to life. People often, it seems to me, set too high a store by dialogue, as if it contained within it all the mechanics of film making. There’s a lot more cinematic trickery to the brilliance of The Vast Of Night than its dialogue. Nevertheless, the dialogue here and the performances of the cast who deliver are fantastic.
Once Everett has demoed her tape recorder to Fay and walked her over to the town telephone switchboard where’s she’s about to do a shift, Fay settles in and starts connecting calls, switching on WOTW radio to listen to Everett’s show while she works. But then she connects a line and hears a sound like, for want of a better description, bustling insects. And another call, with a woman’s words breaking up and the sound of a dog barking, delivers phrases like “something in the sky” and “we’re going to the cellar”.
Fay phones more experienced operators to find out if they’ve ever heard anything like the strange noises which she plays them by plugging in the channel on which she’s hearing them. She asks if there are any police about, but apparently a call just came through about something on the highway. Ethel tells her to call Everett…and “Don’t be shy.”
His call sign is Everett “the Maverick” Sloan. She listens to him talking on his show in between records. Then phones him to get him to listen to the sound coming through the board. Everett, on hearing it, comments, “if it’s foreign and coded, you’d better believe the Air Force is coming to town.” He plays the sound on the air to see if anyone knows what it might be or can offer any wisdom to listeners.
Patterson periodically has a lot of fun pulling cinematic stunts like gratuitously gliding the camera from where Fay is standing outside the switchboard room taking a break down the main street to accompanying thumping noises and across grass past residential housing to the Cayuga High School gym to go inside and watch a bit of the game before pulling out and covering further territory to reveal a ringing phone at the radio station.
Everett puts a military guy on the air who talks about being told to do things that he didn’t understand and made no sense, which he says “is normal in the military”. And the story involves this strange sound, which he recognises from an incident years ago. It turns out he (and everyone on this detail) was black or Mexican “and no one listens to us”. And there’s a tape. So Fay runs to the library where the tape may be stored.
The atmosphere throughout is extraordinary, with Patterson utilising such other devices as sudden blackouts, stolen cars, and unsettling strings on the music soundtrack. Another caller, a woman, phones, with a very clear voice, Mabel Blanche (Gail Cronauer). “I can tell you what’s going on,” she says. And later, Everett and Fay have visited her in person and she’s explained, she says, convincingly, “I didn’t just think this up.,, I’ve had an entire life to think about this… Years alone… And that’s what I think.”
A nastier, more cynical side is revealed as underlying Everett’s character when he refuses to grant the woman a request and when he suddenly, unexpectedly, tells the excitable Fay to shut up. These are characters in whose company you want to spend ninety minutes, but in that time even though you get to know both of them you still feel you’ve barely scratched the surface, such is Patterson’s gift for moviemaking and storytelling.
I’ve never heard of any of the cast in this film before, but under Patterson’s direction the two leads give incredible performances as does Cronauer in her brief 10 minutes appearance. Almost everything about this film is extraordinary – the photography, the sound, the art direction, the music… the way you sometime feel as if you’re watching Fay doing nothing and yet somehow the experience, the narrative, is utterly electrifying. It works as a small scale human drama, as a slice of period Americana, as grown up science fiction.
The attention to detail is astonishing, and you’ll come away thinking you want to know more about how US telephone operators did their job in the fifties. In fact, the only thing that doesn’t entirely work is the TV episode frame story, and even that misjudgement delivers some compelling elements such as a bicycle ride in which a transformed into magical, ropey signal black & white Fay is briefly framed in a rounded edges, 4:3 TV frame.
This Amazon Original appears to have come out of nowhere and absolutely demands to be seen.
The Vast Of Night has been on Amazon Prime in the UK since Friday, May 29th, 2020.