You are entering Paradox Theater
“You are entering into a realm between clandestine and forgotten, a slipstream caught between channels, the secret museum of mankind, the private library of shadows, all taking place on a stage forged from mystery and found only on a frequency caught between logic and myth. You are entering Paradox Theater.”
From these opening lines, The Vast of Night presents itself within the familiar framework that viewers will immediately recognize. The framework suggests the film, the debut feature from director Andrew Patterson, operates as a sort of pastiche on Rod Serling’s seminal science fiction anthology television series Twilight Zone. But Vast of Night is aiming for far more than being a late 1950s sci-fi nostalgia act; it is an experimental exploration of form that plays with expectations in exciting and inspiring ways. It is also one of the most ambitious and confident directorial debuts since Get Out.
The narrative of the film is deceptively simple. We are somewhere in the final days of the 1950s, in the impossibly small town of Cayuga, New Mexico. Teenage switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick, with crackling energy) encounters an unusual sound over the telephone wire and enlists friend and local DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz in a star-making performance) to investigate it with her. The pair attempt to uncover the source of the noise and discover far more than they were anticipating. To tell much more than that would be giving away final act details, but suffice to say the film has been categorized as “science fiction” by Amazon for a reason.
The actual plot of Vast, however, is not it’s primary draw. It is less about the story it is telling than how it tells it. Back last year, Julian Singleton reviewed Vast of Night after seeing its Texas debut at Fantastic Fest, and focused on the use of crackling sound design that the film utilizes. He compared it favorably to Orson Welles’ famed radio play adaptation of War of the Worlds, which famously used unclear but engaging sound design to convince unsuspecting listeners of an actual alien invasion. I concur that it is difficult to overstate the importance of sound design in this film, both from the aural depth of the strange frequency Fay intercepts, to the way that the soundtrack layers in the score one moment and then drops it out completely the next. Our two central heroes are a pair of audiophile nerds who are obsessed with recording and documenting what they encounter. Inherently, the sound design has to be on point for the tension to work and it certainly doesn’t disappoint.
The visual masterwork of cinematographer M.I. Littin-Menz cannot be understated however. The film loves its unbroken shots, but uses them in surprisingly novel ways. Some of these are traditional long takes, borrowing techniques from one-take masters like Cuarón and Innaratu to explore space. One moment of the film runs across the entire length of Cayuga in a singular shot to emphasize how contained it is; you feel the time traveled, but you also are pulled along. Geography is effortlessly established.
More surprisingly, Vast also uses long takes to linger on actors’ faces, sometimes for long stretches as they are without dialogue and listening to unseen sources; it is extended takes where the actors are exclusively face acting, and it remains enthralling. The first time the film does this, a long section where you simply watch Fay operate her switchboard with no cuts and little interruption, it takes a moment to realize you are simply holding on her reactions. Later, during an on-air call that Everett is broadcasting, the camera cuts entirely to black, engulfing the audience completely in the sound and subtly of voice acting from Bruce Davis, playing a military veteran with some vital and clandestine information. All of these long takes lead to the viewer feeling each cut; the editing feels extremely deliberate throughout.
This doesn’t even cover the film’s use of filtering, color manipulation and general visual language. About the time you forget the movie is meant as an episode for a fictional television program, it bleeds into cool blue tones that mimic black-and-white screens. It is a film that is never afraid to play with its artificiality in creative, bold ways. It is a movie that is precisely pitched as a medium that could only be a movie; it has long stretches where it might function as an audio play, but the added sub-text of the precise camera work provides texture, somewhat literally, to what you’re seeing unfold.
The final piece of the puzzle is the screenplay, which provides a skeleton that allows for all of this technical trickery to have something to put on display. Any time that Fay and Everett banter back and forth you are immediately drawn into their relationship and chemistry thanks to back-and-forth that just sings. Later scenes consist of lengthy monologues that could easily become expositional slog in lesser hands, but are enrapturing thanks to writing that reminds of fireside ghost stories and masterful performances. Not since Rian Johnson’s Brick has a script used dialogue to establish place and tone so effortlessly.
Beyond just intoxicating dialogue, the film is extremely well plotted. Without giving too much away, the totality of the story plays out nearly in real time, precisely how long a high school basketball game would last. But it is propulsive, with each scene leading to the next and providing context and challenge. Julian’s comparison to old radio dramas is apt; there is no wasted space or time, and even with moments of contemplative silence, the slim 90 minute run time makes the most of what it has to get done. Pointedly, the conclusion doesn’t explicitly answer every question you might have, but establishes enough that you feel satisfied.
Ultimately the framework of being a Twilight Zone homage feels appropriate as it taps into the enduring tone of that series: quiet, creeping uncertainty and paranoia. The Cold War setting certainly helps with that, with offhand mentions of “the Soviets” peppered throughout, as well as the small town gossip that acts as a form of gravity. There is a scene where Fay relays to Everett all the things she’s been reading about in her technology focused publications. Her wide-eyed wonder for forthcoming innovations, some that sound familiar to 21st century ears and some that are still science fiction, creates a sense of excitement at mere possibility, a marveling at the world to come.
In a similar fashion, Patterson seems primarily invigorated to push boundaries in storytelling convention through the medium of film, finding unexpected ways to tell a familiar tale. There is an enthusiasm and imagination to it that is hard not to admire. There are multiple points in Vast of Night where I was grinning ear to ear for remarkably unexpected reasons, sometimes simply at the sheer audacity of its most brazen choices. It can come across as a bit overly proud of its more ambitious intentions, but it is a film that is unafraid to be that ambitious in an era where film is operating with more and more homogeneous voices. The Vast of the Night isn’t interested in feeling like anything else; for that, you can forgive the few moments it gets a little too clever for its own good.
Vast of Night is now available on Amazon Prime streaming.