The Screen Scene Home Video Edition: The Vast of Night

The Screen Scene with Scott Phillips

Last May when I arrived in New Orleans for the Overlook Film Festival, The Vast of Night was not on my list of films to check out.  I had nothing against the film or its premise. I just didn’t see where it fit in my festival schedule.

The curation at the Overlook Film Festival runs so deep that you have several good films to choose from in each time slot. Then, on the evening of June 1st, the festival organizers announced that The Vast of Night had won Best Feature for 2019, and it became the hot ticket for the final day of the fest.

So, never let it be said that I ignore a festival jury. I changed my line-up for Sunday afternoon, and I was rewarded for my willingness to be flexible. The Vast of Night was one of my favorite films of 2019. It’s that diamond in the rough that you hope to find at a film festival, but rarely do.

Fay (Sierra McCormick) is a high school student in New Mexico in the 1950’s. She has a part-time job as one of the operators of the local telephone switchboard. Her friend, Everett (Jake Horowitz), who happens to be a boy, but may not be her actual “boyfriend,” works at the radio station, spinning records and delivering the local news.

One evening while most of the town is at the big basketball game, Fay encounters a strange noise on the local phone lines. It’s an almost rhythmic pulse of static. When Fay consults Everett, he broadcasts the audio to the town and asks for anyone who has encountered the sound before to call the station and tell him the possible cause of the interference.

Someone calls and offers an explanation that Fay and Everett are not expecting, but the substance of the call crosses the line into Spoiler Territory, so I’ll just stop myself.

The Vast of Night breaks many well-established film-making rules but does so to great effect. Much of the narrative is built from interviews with local residents who may hold the answers to Fay and Everett’s questions.

Long passages of spoken exposition (“info dumps” as screenwriters often call them) are a big no-no. They can grind a film to a halt.  Show don’t tell as the old story-telling rule goes. Despite that advice, two interviews and the lengthy monologues that result, form riveting verbal set pieces. I found myself hanging on their every word.

But what puts The Vast of Night over the top as a film-watching experience is its immersive visual style. My look at how dialogue and spoken exposition are used to great effect could make you think The Vast of Night is just a radio play that’s been filmed. That would be an incorrect assumption.

The director (Andrew Patterson), the cinematographer (M.I. Littin-Menz), editor (Junius Tully) and production designer (Adam Dietrich) have combined their considerable talents to create smooth, kinetic visuals that always serve the story.

There’s a single unbroken take that winds through the neighborhoods of the town, down the streets, into the basketball game and beyond that is a total jaw-dropper. When the credits roll, you know you’ve been in the presence of a major new film-making talent.

It’s hard to avoid as a film critic, but anticipation can influence your reaction to a movie. When someone calls a film a “disappointment,” that very word is clearly based on expectations. As I took my seat for The Vast of Night, I expected to be impressed. As the credits rolled, I was completely gobsmacked. Given the film’s budget and shooting schedule (17 days), it’s a huge accomplishment for the cast and crew. Don’t miss this one.

The Vast of Night hits Amazon Prime on Thursday, May 28th.

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