Monday, November 23, 2020

The Vast of Night (2019)

This endearing curiosity, which debuted at Sundance nearly two years ago and is a first effort by director, cowriter, and editor Andrew Patterson, probably needs some disclaimers to set expectations right. It contains plucky teens with a decidedly Nancy Drew / Hardy Boys vibe in a 1950s small town America trying to unravel a mystery involving UFOs. It opens and closes as a parody of The Twilight Zone¬—in the end, I took this odd frame as evidence of Patterson's ambitions to create his own franchise, which by this evidence I can only support. More than Rod Serling, The Vast of Night reminded me of a semi-obscure 2008 movie, Pontypool. They are both almost theatrical, within the relatively confined spaces of isolated radio broadcasting studios and a high-concept mystery from without, but closing in. The Vast of Night breaks rules at will but always seems to work. For example, sometimes, when people are telling stories (telling stories is ultimately the essence of the picture), visuals drop away entirely into a mostly black screen and we are simply listening to a voice in the dark. So intensely are these stories told we almost don't notice—indeed, it's some relief to have no visual distractions, the better to fill in and expand into the stories. At other times the picture shrinks and takes the shape of a TV screen. The images have a blue cast and are staticky and snowy the way TVs in the '50s could be. Though it is a movie of storytelling, like scary stories told around campfires, really there are only two long ones. But they are doozies. One is told by a late-night listener calling in to the radio station. He identifies himself as Billy (Bruce Davis, purely a voice performance). He claims to have participated in secret Area 51 types of government projects. The other is told by an old woman in her home, Mabel Blanche (Gail Cronauer), who appears to be addled. Not exactly to us—we know by that point what kind of movie we're looking at, so we are more willing to give her bizarre story and conclusions more credence. But to the plucky teens hearing her out she is merely deranged. These teens—Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick) and Everett Sloan (Jake Horowitz)—may yet end up as a couple but they are not all the way there yet, and their connection is mostly cerebral but fruitful. They work well together. From The Twilight Zone to H.P. Lovecraft (the title serves as proximate homage) by way of Close Encounters of the Third Kind—which is the last time I saw such a stately awe-inspiring UFO in a movie—and then all the way back again in a tidy hour and a half. It's impressive—worth a look.