The Vast of Night is a mystery that can’t sustain itself. It’s fine to try and build up to a big reveal, but along the way we need to be invested in more than just “the answer.” Unfortunately, the script for The Vast of Night is wholly invested in two teenagers chasing down a mysterious signal, but fails to show interest in their interior lives, their wants, desires, or really any kind of conflict beyond, “Let’s find out what this signal means.” The film’s saving grace is director Andrew Patterson, who gives his low-budget feature a style and polish far beyond its rudimentary script. The film feels weighty and important because of where he chooses to put the camera and how cinematographer Miguel Ioann Littin Menz lights the scenes, but there’s startlingly little substance beyond the film’s glossy appearance. Perhaps with a better screenplay, Patterson can craft a terrific movie, but like the plot of The Vast of Night, his feature debut can only hint at something greater.
Fay (Sierra McCormick) and Everett (Jake Horowitz) are teenagers in a small New Mexico town in the 1950s on the night of the big basketball game. While most of the town is at the game, Fay and Everett are off to their evening jobs: Everett works as a DJ at the local radio station while Fay works as a switchboard operator. When a mysterious signal starts coming through the airwaves, Fay and Everett resolve to track down its origins, which leads to some revealing conversations, first with a radio caller (Bruce Davis) and later with an elderly resident (Gail Cronauer) who have insight into what the signal means and why it has come to this small town.
Patterson does a terrific job making The Vast of Night feel bigger than it is. His thoughtful direction makes the camera feel like an otherworldly presence. It’s rarely comforting, and yet the film consciously avoids inspiring dread in its audience. The story uses a framing device that “The Vast of Night” is an episode of a Twilight Zone-like TV program, so we know we’re going to be treated to something supernatural, but rather than evoking the classic TV series, Patterson resolves to make a more modern film. At its best moments, The Vast of Night feels like a Twilight Zone movie that tells an original story rather than adapting episodes of the 1950-60s TV program. There’s a lot of promise in The Vast of Night, but the film never really finds the payoff in its story.
Despite the strong chemistry and bouncy dialogue between Fay and Everett, James Montague and Craig W. Sanger‘s script doesn’t probe deeper into these character’s lives. They want to find the signal because it’s interesting, but this doesn’t resolve anything in their personal wants or needs. They want to find the signal, so they spend the movie looking for the signal, but that search doesn’t tell us anything about who Everett and Fay are as individuals. They staunchly remain archetypes on a quest, but that journey never fleshes out the characters, so The Vast of Night simply becomes about resolving the mystery.
And in trying to resolve that mystery, you can feel the production straining against its budget. There are two long monologues, one from the radio caller and one from the elderly woman, and in a film with more money, you can sense that we would see these flashbacks rather than just have someone tell us about their past. But because The Vast of Night is confined to this small town, it’s stuck telling instead of showing, which further deflates the cinematic quality of the picture despite Patterson’s obvious skills. The only thing the film really pursues is the mystery, and the answer to that mystery is fine for what it is, but it has little relation to any character drama or thematic weight. The Vast of Night wants to evoke The Twilight Zone and even Amblin movies, but to little effect because the overall movie isn’t really about anything other than the signal’s source.
The promise of The Vast of Night is all in its visuals. It’s a nice film and world to sink into for 90 minutes, and the atmosphere carries the movie further than you think it will. But ultimately, the visuals can only go so far when the characters and the story are so dreadfully thin. While the budget may have limited the scope of the plot, there’s no reason Fay and Everett couldn’t have been stronger, more compelling characters rather than a mystery-delivery system. The Vast of Night calls our attention to Patterson as a talent to watch, but beyond that, you’ll find yourself drifting once the allure of the mystery fades away.