“The Vast of Night”: Close Encounters of the Malevolent Kind

“The Vast of Night”: Close Encounters of the Malevolent Kind May 29, 2020

Believe it or not, I don’t take pleasure in knocking films.  I know critics have a reputation for snark and sadism, but if anything, I probably err towards overpraising the movies I review.  I respect the hard work by a cast of hundreds that goes into a single movie, and from my observation of directors, producers, and actors at film fest Q&As, they mostly seem like a swell bunch of humans.

Watching this Q&A from Toronto, this appears to hold true for the creators of The Vast of Night as well.  But aside from its impressive technical aspects, this debut by director Andrew Patterson is more problematic than praiseworthy.

In a lackluster script by newcomers James Montague and Craig W. Sanger, the two leads don’t come to life as more than mannerisms and 1950s period outfits.  As a pair of A/V nerds, Everett (Jay Horowitz) and Fay (Sierra McCormick) together leave their small-town high school just as the season opener basketball game is commencing.  Walking through now-empty streets, they part ways to their respective jobs:  Everett as night DJ, Fay as switchboard operator.

Everett (Jay Horowitz) and Fay (Sierra McCormick), in “The Vast of Night”

There’s supposed to be a romantic spark between them, but I scarcely felt it.  Everett is shallow and overbearing, delivering a nonstop patter of hip phrases.  Kay is competent and nice, meekly suffering Everett’s patronizing demeanor.  At one point, he interrupts her by spouting, “Cool it, Clyde,” which made me wonder:  did people ever talk like this?

With the film’s drama unfolding over the course of a single night, their shifts turn bizarre when clicks and static interrupt Everett’s broadcast and the town’s phone lines.  Together, the adolescent pair seeks guidance from listeners to Everett’s show, and a sinister extraterrestrial scheme materializes.  Without spoiling too much, The Vast of Night emanates a strong Close Encounters of the Third Kind vibe, if Steven Spielberg’s faraway visitors were malign.

Technically, the director and his production team achieved a lot on a small budget and a 17-day shooting window.  The Vast of Night is framed at its start and conclusion as a TV episode in the vein of The Twilight Zone, with a couple of entr’actes shot in grainy, blue tones to mimic the look of television from that period.  Andrew Patterson inventively gives us a couple of long takes, lensed with a mini-cam on a go-kart, that zip us from switchboard to radio station to basketball court, to furnish us a geography of events in fictional Cayuga, New Mexico.

Before it picks up its pace, The Vast of Night drags for its opening third.  There’s a loo-o-ong take (nearly ten minutes) of Kay at the switchboard, which feels self-indulgent, as if to prove that Sierra McCormick really learned how to operate 60-year-old equipment.

Rod Serling could seldom resist inserting a moral into his Twilight Zone episodes, something Jordan Peele has continued with the show’s current iteration.  The Vast of Night follows suit, but whereas the take-homes of Serling and Peele’s tales are noble if heavy-handed, the message of Patterson’s film is frankly deleterious.  By positing the existence of unseen foes who create racism, shame single mothers, and foment McCarthyite us-vs.-them fear-mongering, The Vast of Night is lifting the responsibility for social ills out of human hands.

(And I’m pretty sure it’s Christianity’s Devil that the aliens are standing in for; the closing credits of The Vast of Night inform us that we’ve just been watching The Scandelion Television Hour.  It’s scarcely credible that Patterson would coincidentally name-drop skandalon, an obscure Greek term referencing the Gospel message.)

With multiple crises facing us today – a malevolent President adored by white evangelicals, melting icecaps, cops who love killing black people – it strikes me as immature and pernicious to scapegoat an imaginary, invisible Evildoer for our world’s woes.  Unlike Everett and Kay, we don’t need to squint at the clouds to find humanity’s enemies.

 

(The Vast of Night is streaming on Amazon.)

 

(Image credit for star rating: Yasir72.multan CC BY-SA 3.0 )

 


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