The opening scenes of “The Vast of Night” introduce viewers to a world – small-town America in the 1950s – so commonly portrayed in popular culture that it might as well not even exist, yet through the might of a strong directorial voice, it feels new and alive. The scene is a high school gym, where Everett (Jake Horowitz), a hip teenager who works as the local DJ, is called in to fix an electrical problem. The lights are flickering. Everyone reminds him that the last time this happened it was because a squirrel was chewing on the wires. They found it dead with the wire still in its mouth.
We are introduced to Everett in an ominously long, unbroken shot, as he chats with an assortment of students, teachers, and other interested parties. It’s a big game, and the whole town will be there, except for him and Fay (Sierra McCormick), a younger girl who works as a switchboard operator. As outsiders who often work while everyone else is playing, Everett and Fay have struck up a quirky friendship. She has just bought a tape recorder (an exciting new technology at the time), so he teaches her how to use it by weaving in and out of the crowd entering the gym, interviewing the locals.
This scene is just preamble to the film’s more sensational elements, which revolve around these two loners investigating a possible UFO sighting just outside of town, but it creates a pervasive tension between the known and the unknown, between the seeker and that which wishes to remain hidden. Later that night, Fay hears a strange noise through her switchboard and gets Everett to play it on the air. A call comes in from a former military officer who has heard the sound before. From another caller, they get a report of a hovering object. This sets Everett, Fay, and the tape recorder on a journey through the night to discover the source of the sound and record it for posterity.
It’s a small-scale adventure, with the film’s grander elements kept mostly out of sight. Instead, it succeeds on the backs of its performers – especially Horowitz and McCormick, who carry a heavy load – and the engaging mood created by its first-time director Andrew Patterson. With a limited score and sparse plot, Patterson maintains an edge-of-your seat through his total command of the form. Some sequences are shot statically, with few cuts or camera movements, letting the actors create movement through performance. Elsewhere, he employs the language of expressionism, moving the camera great distances in a few moments or interspersing cuts to black in an otherwise tense scene to keep the viewer on edge. As an exercise in tension-building, the payoff may be too gentle for some viewers but felt appropriately understated to this one
Its one serious misstep is a framing device in which the film’s events are occasionally seen on a grainy TV screen, an episode of a “Twilight Zone” knock-off shown in an undefined, present-day world. It’s a gimmick, commonly employed by rookie directors, borne out of artistic insecurity that raises questions it can’t answer and ultimately only detracts from the tension of the moment. “The Vast of Night” is strong enough to exist without any qualification. It’s a film that makes you lean in to listen harder, not because it’s particularly quiet, but because you want to be the first to know what happens next.
“The Vast of Night” is now streaming on Amazon Prime.