I knew next to nothing about The Vast of Night before I watched it. I’d seen it come up in the chatter about this week’s online releases, which is why I chose to watch it, and had read the beginning of the synopsis on Amazon Prime which says;
‘In the twilight of the 1950s, on one fateful night in New Mexico, a young switchboard operator Fay and charismatic DJ Everett…’
There’s more to that but you have to scroll down for the rest and I just clicked play. Yep, that was all I had going in, this and the title which suggested that something, probably nefarious, was going to come out of the expansive darkness of the late evening/early morning at some point during the story.
I’m not going to tell you precisely what emerges from said vastness of said night, but needless to say there’s only a couple of choices of what it could be and it’s not a surprise when you find out. This isn’t a criticism though because this film isn’t about challenging genre expectations, it is about totally delighting in them.
The Vast of Night is a low budget film and as such feels quite televisual. The whole concept of what belongs in cinemas and what belongs on TV screens has been totally redefined in the last fifteen years with it now being more about long or short form storytelling rather than the amount of money spent on the cast and the setting. The Vast of Night deliberately plays on traditional notions of this though, actually bookending its narrative with a 60s Twilight Zone/Outer Limits style intro and credits and also feeling more than a little like an episode of The X-Files. As such it isn’t limited by its financial constraints and it plays up visuals, character and atmosphere ably with the resources it has.
The Mulder and Scully figures here are the aforementioned DJ Everett and switchboard operator Fay, investigating the strange occurrences around them. The two of them are acquaintances in a mid century middle American town where everyone is an acquaintance and both they and the place where they live are set up in two superb long shots at different stages of the movie. Lots of films have tried this trick recently, most notably Roma, 1917 and Extraction, yet again a director has found a way to stretch the possibilities of this tool beyond what we’ve seen before. The opening scene is an extended walk and talk that extends to limits that Aaron Sorkin could only have dreamed of, and in which we get to know the central duo and their relationship. This is impressive enough but then later we get an incredible steady cam sequence that trikes from location to location around the town , providing a great sense of the geographical and cultural closeness of this community. I’m sure it is digitally enhanced but it is still visually outstanding.
Fay and Everett have a nice dynamic. She clearly has a tiny bit of a crush on him which he clearly plays to. At the start they engage in banter about current and future technology which is amusing to listen to with the modern day hindsight that the characters lack but that we (and the writers) have. Then it is interesting to see all of these trivialities fall away as the mystery and the tension builds. The wonderful retro mood seamlessly switches from Happy Days to The Day the Earth Stood Still but never loses the authenticity of the decade it is set in.
The way the story slowly cranks things up is nicely matched by its denouement too. Having made so much of the repeated line ‘there’s something in the sky’ it delivers on the promise of this without going all 10 Cloverfield Lane in the closing minutes. Other movies have brought the full spectacle but this film knows its strength is in its restraint and gives its audience what it needs at the end with undermining or eclipsing this.
The Vast of Night was originally planned to go into cinemas but while it might fit better playing directly into people’s living rooms, it is still a stylish, skilfully produced and entertaining film. You already know way more than you need to, just give it a go.
The Ripley Factor:
There is already a very distinct idea of the 1950s American Woman; aware of their cultural place, conscious of appearances, stylish and smart but limited in their ambition to teaching, retail, secretarial, clerking or indeed switchboard roles. The Vast of Night doesn’t look to rattle this cage this with Fay but still presents her as a brave and forthright young lady, quick to do what is needed to protect the ones she loves. She’s no Mrs. Maisel but she presents a positive role model without being a protofeminist.
The Vast of Night is on Amazon Prime Video