“The Vast of Night”: Micro Budget, not Micro Entertainment

Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios

In 2019, director Andrew Patterson broke onto the cinematic stage with his debut film “The Vast of Night”. Reminiscent of The Twilight Zone and classic television, the micro-budget film opened at a little-known film festival in Salt Lake City, Utah and has been streaming solely on Amazon Prime ever since. Despite the film’s relative obscurity, it is one of my family’s favorite movies, and I wish to spread its viewership more widely. To me, “The Vast of Night” represents the very best of back-to-the-roots cinematic entertainment. 

In a nutshell, “The Vast of Night” tells the story of a small fictional town in New Mexico in the 1950s whose residents contend with the emergence of a disconcerting humming sound heard on all the radios. The two protagonists, one a switchboard operator (Fay) and the other a radio producer (Everett), face a rising number of calls flooding in to report this so-called “thing in the sky.” As the plot unravels, the breadcrumb trail is laid for an ending that will stay with viewers long after the lights come on (pardon the cliché).

Many other modern-day movies suffer from the ills of consumerism and the low attention spans of viewers. They often rely on million-dollar effects and star-studded casts to carry a hollow plot. “The Vast of Night” is the perfect antidote to this alarming trend — sometimes a slow-moving, low budget, character-driven film holds all the appeal. 

Patterson’s movie succeeds because of its incredible use of subtext: subtle hints and tools that beckon the viewer along to enter into the world of the film. Indeed, the numerous small techniques used by the director (character building, long takes, and deliberate editing) assist in creating the truly brilliant film that “The Vast of Night” is. 

One of the most rewarding aspects of watching this movie is the intensity and intimacy with which we get to know all of the characters. With “The Vast of Night”, Patterson has created a truly character-driven movie. Avoiding big-budget effects forces the viewer to focus on the characters’ growth. Indeed, these people existing in their own small fictional world start to feel like close friends. As the two protagonists are walking along a dark road at night, talking about the expected technological improvements in our time, their naivété warms the heart while rendering them in even keener detail. Patterson has done an incredible job at rendering the raw humanity of these personages, and making viewers root for them in times of trouble and cheer them on in times of success. 

Reminiscent of Tarr and Tarkovsky, Patterson has also resorted to long takes to shoot the majority of this movie. And they are my favorite part. Two in particular come to mind as masterclasses in slow cinema and storytelling. 

The first is a five-minute-long take as the camera glides and meanders around the town of Cayuga, New Mexico. Shot with the camera attached to the front of a go-kart and then passed off to camera operators in a gym and a radio station, this long take establishes the environment incredibly well. With ominous music playing, as the camera parades the darkened streets and fields of the town, even entering a gym during a basketball game, this shot is definitely one of my favorites from the movie, if not of all time. If you are interested, this spoiler-free shot is on YouTube here

Another one of my favorite shots, however, is one of Fay operating an old switchboard, trying to juggle the numerous calls that are inundating the radio station after the alien sound is heard. It is a ten-minute shot as the camera creeps closer and closer to Fay’s face as the tension builds and she frantically answers the calls with screams on the other end as the “thing in the sky” approaches. Honestly, it’s a slightly spoiler-filled shot that can only be fully appreciated by a careful watch through. 

Andrew Patterson himself also edited the movie, and the finished product stands as a testament to his immense talent. There is one very specific cut, the context of which is veiled under a twist in the plot so not much more information can be given, that occurs at about the 1:11 mark of the movie and is definitely my favorite cut of all time. After a long monologue by an elderly lady giving multiple clues as to who the “people in the sky” are, shot with her in profile, the camera suddenly cuts to her face straight on. After watching her cheek for minutes upon minutes, to see her piercing eyes staring directly at you is sure to stick in your conscience for days. After holding on the prior shot, to say this simple cut is off-putting is an understatement. It is a tool such as this that Patterson uses so well to create an atmosphere of tension and dissonance in the film. 

And, of course, the ending. After such a tightly controlled plot, the final scenes of this movie knock the wind out of your lungs and leave you with a haunting (if slightly expected) finale. Nonetheless, it serves as a brilliant capstone for this incredible work of cinema. 

“The Vast of Night” is not a film for everyone. There are certain moments that are a bit lackluster, maybe owing to budget issues, but the film as a whole serves all the purposes it set out to. At once, it combats the consumerism and quickening of our everyday lives, while also serving up a plot and characters that amaze even after too many viewings to count.

“The Vast of Night” is available to stream for free with Amazon Prime.

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