Review: The Vast of Night

Distributor: Amazon Studios
Director: Andrew Patterson
Writers: James Montague, Craig Sanger 
Composer: Erick Alexander, Jared Bulmer
Starring: Sierra McCormick, Jake Horowitz, Gail Cronauer, Bruce Davis, Gregory Peyton
Genre: Science Fiction, Drama, Mystery

Amazon Prime’s new film, The Vast of Night, has gained a lot of attention since its premiere this summer. As cinephiles have struggled to fill the movie drought during the COVID lockdown, many have turned to streaming services for new content. Smaller independent movies, like Andrew Patterson’s breakout science fiction film, have gained an opportunity to develop cult followings at this time! 

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: None.
Language/Crude Humor: Some severe language including f*** and g**d***.
Drug/Alcohol References:  Features frequent teen smoking (cigarettes).
Sexual Content: None.
Spiritual Content: None.
Other Negative Content: None.
Positive Content: Themes of truth, mystery and discovery. 

Review

The opening shot of The Vast of Night tracks into a television displaying a Rod Sterling style TV show that’s reminiscent of The Twilight Zone. The movie frames the story to put you in the mindset that you’re watching a low-budget 1950s science fiction program. In practice, that’s what the film is. It’s an ultra-low-budget independent movie by a first-time director. As a stylistic function though, it calls attention to the film’s low-fi nature. It gives a film that’s comprised of minimal content a sense of gravitas and weight. It’s placing the audience’s mindset to look at the story through a frame of reference. In doing so, it’s calling attention to its own style and technical prowess.

The Vast of Night is the quintessential freshman film. It’s shot in an offbeat location with unknown actors and minimal production design. Most of the scenes are shot in long one-takes that call to mind the opening sequence of Touch of Evil. There aren’t many special effects, but the ones we do have are clearly something the film didn’t have a large enough budget to do more than once. The minor performances are all handled by eccentric actors with sharply defined personalities and quirks that pop out the moment you see them. That eccentricity is true of the film’s entire production design and scope though. The nature of the long takes and its obscene attention to detail in its minor performance gives the film a sense that the director is showing off his technical skills and directing abilities. That said, I suspect that director Andrew Patterson is going to get a lot of job offers given how the film turned out. 

The story is your traditional B-movie scenario: in an idyllic 1950s rural suburb, two young high school students find themselves caught with a mystery. A mysterious sound is heard on the radio and over the phone, and the two students decide to investigate the sound and discover the source. In doing so over the course of one long night, they find themselves listening to eccentric stories by local gadflies who claim something supernatural is happening in their town. 

I don’t mean to sound dismissal when I say this film is primarily a stylistic exercise. First-time directors need to make a mark if they want to establish themselves and garner attention within the industry. It’s also beside the point. The Vast of Night is a solid B-movie entirely on its own terms. The movie looks lush and cool in its color scheme (outside of a few underexposed outdoor scenes). The young first-time actors all do excellent work with the material and handle some of the excessive 5-10 minutes long takes with consistently engaging performances. The film has a solid dramatic foundation and takes time to set up its characters before sewing the seeds of discontent and mystery into the minds of our lead characters. We watch the nature of the mystery unfold in front of us just as it does for our characters. 

If the film has any minor issue it’s the unoriginal nature of its premise. This story has been told a thousand times and the ending evokes the mystery and hauntingly inconclusive nature of the questions it asks. The film is a mystery narrative about unknowable knowledge, so the answers it provides are understandable but I’m guessing some audiences will find the film’s conclusion inconclusive. Given that some of the people I sat and watched the film with felt underwhelmed, I have the sense this movie won’t impress people who aren’t willing to grade it on a curve as a low-budget, first-time filmmaker’s work. 

The Vast of Night is quite modestly excellent on its own terms though! I might’ve appreciated it more if the film had chosen a more esoteric or complicated explanation for its core mystery, or found more of a message to express in the style of Rod Sterling’s work, but the awe and drama it’s able to draw with its limited premise is more than impressive for what it is. As I said, I think we’re going to be hearing a lot more from Andrew Patterson going forward when he’s inevitably tapped for a Star Wars or Godzilla sequel five years from now. His style calls to mind the early work of Colin Trevorrow, Josh Trank, and Gareth Edwards, who all went on to notable Hollywood careers (for better or worse). 

Positives

+ Great child performances
+ Beautiful production design, lighting and cinematography
+ Solid mystery script

Negatives

- Somewhat unoriginal story and conclusion

The Bottom Line

The Vast of Night is a great directorial debut and one of the strongest films released on streaming so far in 2020! If you have Amazon Prime, it's well worth checking out!

 

8.2

Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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