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Amazon’s grainy retro sci-fi movie The Vast of Night plays like an unbeatable campfire story

It’s a basic, familiar tale, but supremely well-told

Sierra McCormick listens intently to the phone in The Vast of Night Photo: Amazon Studios

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Tasha Robinson leads Polygon’s movie coverage. She’s covered film, TV, books, and more for 20 years, including at The A.V. Club, The Dissolve, and The Verge.

The characters in Andrew Patterson’s crisp directorial debut The Vast of Night never actually reference nighttime, or its size relative to anything else. But they don’t need to explain or justify the title as the action is unfolding. By the end of the movie, it’s apparent that nothing significant that happens in The Vast of Night could have plausibly happened by daylight. The film, which played the festival circuit in 2019 and is now streaming on Amazon Prime, has a thin wisp of a story: two teenagers discover a mysterious broadcast signal, then learn where it comes from. But the weight of nighttime and the sense of isolation it brings give the film a feeling of weighty horror, and make it feel mythic. It’s a campfire ghost story, the kind of tale meant to be told in a hushed, intent voice to a small circle of friends craning forward to catch the details.

Jake Horowitz and Sierra McCormick star as a pair of bright teenagers living in Cayuga, New Mexico (population: 492) in an unspecified era with the design hallmarks of 1950s science-fiction movies: the heavy-rimmed scientist glasses, the ubiquitous button-down shirts for boys and bobby socks for girls, the cars that look like sleek rolling fortresses. Everett (Horowitz) is an audiovisual tech geek who oversees the recording equipment at the local high school and works at the local radio station. Fay (McCormick) is a perky go-getter who works at the local phone switchboard. One night while most of the town is caught up in a local basketball game, Fay hears a weird oscillating signal on her board, and asks Everett to help investigate. And much of the rest of the film is devoted either to the two of them hurrying from one location to another to dig into the mystery, or other characters delivering long, quiet monologues explaining the signal’s history. There’s virtually no action, no conflict, and no violence, just unfolding discovery.

And for audiences in the mood for something alternately playful and ruminative, it’s pretty tremendous. The early going of the film unfolds like micro-budget Wes Anderson meets the Coen brothers. Fay seems simultaneously naïve and worldly, brash and shy, in the way of a teenager just starting to outgrow kid-energy and find a more level personality. Everett, as the balanced meeting point between A/V dork and too-cool-for-school teen heartthrob, shares a fair bit of cinematic DNA with Max Fischer in Anderson’s Rushmore. Fay and Everett are both too quirky and stylized to resonate as real, but they’re appealingly smart, earnest, and capable. Patterson and co-writer Craig W. Sanger characterize them efficiently and naturally, without unnecessary exposition.

Jake Horowitz stands in the open door of a switchboard room, talking on a headset in The Vast of Night Photo: Amazon Studios

Their early wandering banter is pure Coens characterization: it’s centered on heightened dialogue that looks silly in print, but Horowitz and McCormick deliver it with an easy commitment that makes it feel more authentic than real slang. (“Cut the gas, cube, you were a mile wide,” Everett tells Fay when she gets a movie line wrong. And later, encouraging her to share an interesting detail she read recently: “Come on, let me have it. Razz my berries.”) As Everett and Fay cross the town and test out Fay’s new tape recorder, their brisk chatter is appealing in part because they’re so collegiate, with the air of old hands who’ve been working together for decades, but still have a youthful spark. He’s older and just slightly condescending, but amiable about it. She’s impervious to his teasing. There’s very little hint of romantic or social tension between them, certainly not enough to distract the story into exploring it — but there is just that faintest hint as spice. They make a great team-up that could ably feature in any number of mystery stories.

The Vast of Night’s one disappointment, then, is that they have so little to do. Long before the film’s real story starts, with a perfectly casual discovery that seems like nothing significant at the time, viewers are primed to authentically like these two crazy kids, both simultaneously layered with 1950s earnestness and a sly sparkiness. But the story doesn’t require them to be clever, capable, or even driven to get to the end. They’re largely carried along by events, with most of the film’s forward momentum supplied by those lengthy monologues, where other characters explain the storyline. It’s an oddball structure for a mystery, and not fully satisfying, no more than it would be if a Sherlock Holmes story featured the detective walking over to Moriarty’s place and sitting down to listen as the villain politely laid out all his goals, methods, and secrets.

But then there’s that nighttime hush, that woozy sense of unreality and plausibility that comes with late-night weariness and isolation. The near-empty desert setting means there are few distractions from the rapt stillness of an audience listening to a story unfold. As the story’s informants tell Everett and Fay what’s going on, Patterson weaponizes his cinematography and sound design against the audience’s disbelief, dropping out the visuals entirely and leaving viewers in darkness, or fading out his urgent score to make the conversations seem even quieter. The whole film hangs on the hushed tension of a couple of strong storytellers telling Everett and Fay what they know, while even the walls and the radio station’s mics seem to be straining to hear the details. At times, the film seems to be whispering its secrets directly into the audience’s ear.

Jake Horowitz and Sierra McCormick sit in front of a 1950s microphone at the radio station in The Vast of Night Photo: Amazon Studios

It’s an intimate movie, interrupted only by an impressively showy one-shot that sends a camera hurtling through the town, establishing the contrast between its open, silent spaces and the busy huddle of the big high-school basketball game. And while cinephiles make this point so often that it’s become tedious even if it’s true, it’s a film designed for a dark room with no interruptions. It’s designed to cast a delicate spell over the audience, but the audience has to participate to make the trick work.

The Vast of Night is framed, oddly enough, as an episode of a Twilight Zone-esque 1950s anthology show, with a Rod Sterling-style introduction, bookends showing the film playing on a TV, and occasional shots that pull back to the faux screen. It’s an odd misstep for an otherwise assured debut, adding nothing but a distancing irony to a film that’s at its best when it’s intensely earnest. The story of The Vast of Night is nothing particularly special. The storytelling, though, is spectacular.

The Vast of Night is streaming on Amazon Prime.