Steve Taylor-Bryant headed for 1950s New Mexico and watched The Vast of Night, showing at Edinburgh Film Festival...
Do you remember when you were a child, I’m talking to people who grew up in the late 70’s and early 80’s here, when you watched something so fascinating that had next to no visual effects and was fantastic drama just through how it was written or how it looked? That was the feeling I was left with after watching the entrancing The Vast of Night. The film is marketed as a sort of Twilight Zone episode and it really is reminiscent of olden days science fiction in that way helped along by first time director Andrew Patterson’s mixture of old tube television style, use of language, impeccable nods to the era, and cinematographer Miguel I. Litten-Menz’ beautiful camera work and 1950’s sheen.
The tale is set in 1950’s New Mexico, the hub of alien activity, and shows radio personality Everett (Jake Horowitz) and his young protégé, telephone switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) as they discover a strange noise one night over the telephone line and radio waves whilst the entire town is at a high school basketball game. Throughout the night they try and discover the origin of the noise and when Billy (Bruce Davis) phones in with a story of military work done in secret in the nearby desert that left soldiers with all kind of illnesses, the story takes a strange turn. When the power goes out in the radio studio, they are contacted by an elderly lady called Mabel (Gail Cronauer) who they record speaking a foreign language and talking of a child abducted by the people in the sky.
The Vast of Night is an old-fashioned alien abduction story just told remarkably well and from the point of view of ordinary people. There are no army generals or government agents it is literally just a radio host and a teenage phone operator. The entire film, the premise of the story, and the evocative mood is left primarily to the two young stars to carry off and they go about their parts with a professionalism that belies their relative inexperience. There is one scene in particular that is about 10 minutes in length, in the second act, which is just McCormick at the phone switchboard, that I have to believe was done in one take. This one scene sets the pace, the tension, the origin of the story to come, and initiates the tension you are about to feel. It is just McCormick and her dialogue but there is such a feeling, such a grip that she has on you during that scene that makes what plays out later matter to you as a viewer. Horowitz plays the young 50’s radio host with a believability to him that allows you to be immersed in the 50’s the entire time and he does a lot of talking and walking, a skill not many actors can pull off so effortlessly. He reminds me of a young Bradley Whitford in the early episodes of The West Wing, spinning his dialogue with care, wit, and a style that is just so attractive to watch and that first act by debut writers James Montague and Craig W. Sanger is very heavy dialogue and driven by the talking and walking. If you don’t think “If Aaron Sorkin wrote The Twilight Zone” is the highest compliment I can give this script, then you don’t know me very well. It is a stunning piece of writing that uses dialogue as an effect rather than having to rely on visuals and is such a breath of fresh air in today’s cinematic landscape.
So good is the dialogue, the performances, the evocative and creepy score by Erick Alexander and Jared Bulmer, and the beautiful camera work and direction that you don’t miss CGI, you don’t miss masses of computerised props to tell the story, so when you finally get a small slice of the unbelievable it is that much more impressive. The Vast of Night is a filmmaker and his team using every tool in their arsenal, spending every valuable dollar correctly, to produce something so magnificent you have to ask yourself why studios don’t want to make this kind of film anymore. This wasn’t a viewing of a film; this was a cinematic experience that left me glued to my seat long after the credits had rolled. Bravo all involved, bravo indeed.
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Image - EIFF