Tuesday, May 12, 2020

There's something out there in 'The Vast of Night'

[THE VAST OF NIGHT opens in northeast Ohio on Friday May 15th at The Mayfield Road Drive-in in Chardon, the Elm Road Drive-in in Warren, and the Magic City Drive-in in Barberton.]

Review by Bob Ignizio

While THE VAST OF NIGHT is set in the 1950s, its themes are just as relevant today as they ever were. On the surface, the film is about two small town teenagers – radio DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz) and switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) – trying to track down the origins of a mysterious radio signal that interferes with both the phone system and Everett’s broadcast. What it really seems to be about, though, are small town fears. Both the fear of being stuck in a place where you don’t belong and don’t see much future, and the opposite but equal fear of leaving that place, no matter how stifling it might be.

Director Andrew Patterson, working from a script by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger, allows his film to unfold at a leisurely pace. Not only does that give us plenty of time to get to know our two leads and the world they inhabit, but it allows the mystery and suspense to build slowly and naturally. There’s talk of UFOs and possible alien abductions, and a subplot about a government cover-up that touches on our nation’s legacy of racism. But Patterson plays it subtle, and doesn’t try to juice things up with contrived action or peril. There is a satisfying (albeit ambiguous) payoff in the end, but it’s far from the sort of climax one would find in a more mainstream film.

Look, in these modern times when audiences are just as likely to be glancing at their phones as the movie they’re watching, a slow burn sci-fi drama like this that demands viewer attention might be a tough sell. But for those willing to focus and let THE VAST OF NIGHT wash over them, they might just find themselves sucked in by its atmosphere.

Although clearly a low budget film, VAST understands what its strengths and limitations are, playing up the former while largely avoiding the potential pitfalls of the latter. There isn’t much in the way of special effects, but when the film does require them, they’re done well.

Veteran character actress Gail Cronauer comes in for a brief scene in which trauma from her past is tied into the present, and Bruce Davis’s voice acting as a radio caller claiming to have information about the mysterious sound is compelling, but for the most part it’s up to the two leads to carry the film.  And both Horowitz and McCormick do an excellent job of it, coming across as slightly awkward fifties teens who nonetheless feel believable as they go into amateur sleuth mode.

Patterson’s direction is noteworthy, too. If I had to guess at his influences, I’d say John Sayles and early Terrence Malick, … maybe a little David Lynch, Guy Maddin, and Jim Jarmusch. And probably some of the lesser known regional filmmakers who made similar modestly budgeted genre oddities in the seventies and early eighties like STRANGE INVADERS. But nothing that feels like an overt homage or pastiche; just a general vibe.

While overall THE VAST OF NIGHT works, it's not completely without issues. The framing sequence, which presents the story as an episode of a Twilight Zone-esque TV show, isn’t just unnecessary – at times it threatens to pull viewers out of the film’s spell. And while the laid back tone and languid pacing are fine for the most part, the film does drag at times. Still, for a debut feature made with the kind of limitations everyone was obviously working under here, those are small quibbles.

As Joe Bob Briggs has often said, “the drive-in will never die!” In that spirit, THE VAST OF NIGHT opens this weekend, in the midst of the covid-19 pandemic that has left all the multiplexes that would normally be showing “indoor bull-stuff” shuttered, at select drive-in theaters. It’s not the sort of drive-in fare Joe Bob usually says to “check out”, as there is no sex or violence. In fact, the only reason I can fathom for the PG-13 rating is some minor profanity, and possibly the fact that the teen characters both smoke. But if you’re going stir crazy and want to catch a new movie on the big screen in comfort and safely socially distanced conditions of your own car, you can. If you’d rather wait to watch it at home, it shows up on Amazon Prime May 29th.

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