Thursday, June 4, 2020

The Vast of Night


What if... a 50's era scifi B-movie... but artistically?

That's the question that serves as pitch and premise for The Vast of Night. It introduces itself like an episode of The Twilight Zone. Then the camera moves into the TV world and we meet Everett (Jake Horowitz) and Fay (Sierra McCormick). It's the night of the big basketball game in small-town New Mexico, and everyone's going but them. Everett is the local radio station DJ, and Fay is manning the telephone switchboard. The two are friends because of a mutual fascination with sound, and the technology that allows them to record and broadcast it. When Fay hears a strange sound interrupt Everett's show, and then come through the phone lines, they team up to find out what it is, where it comes from, and what it means.

An Amazon Original, available on Prime.

And the movie delivers exactly what it promises -- an artistically built scifi tale that feels like it jumped straight out of the 1950's. The first thing you'll notice is that there is constant dialogue, particularly in the opening and set-up, as important information is fed through casual conversations. Packed full of 50's jargon, and delivered at speed. Second thing you'll notice is that the camera is very particular. It follows its characters as is it were an invisible entity stalking them, with many long takes and tracking shots, often keeping its distance. And the third thing, is that the lighting is dark. Really dark. The movie seems interested to highlight the audio element -- and why not considering its premise -- and to that end, it cuts to a black screen at least twice so that we have no choice but to exclusively listen to what's being said.

The dark, and the stalking camera are for me, both admirable and frustrating. For one, I love when the frame is allowed to open up and isn't always right on the characters faces. I like to see where they are (in the world and in relation to each other) and be able to observe body language. I also like when characters feel slightly obscured so that I'm naturally compelled to pay closer attention to see and understand them. If it's possible to go too far with that, this movie may have found the line. There was no moment that didn't feel obscured. Both leads wear thick-rimmed glasses that seem intended to hide their eyes, even in closeups. But the camera knows what it's doing. There's always a glint; a flash; and just enough light to show you what you need to see.

And as an admirer of details I appreciate that careful dedication.

This method would fall flat if the acting weren't up to snuff. Good thing it is. And not just passable; the performances, characterization, and casting -- though it's a smaller movie and the leads are unknowns -- are all quite frankly fantastic. The thing that impressed me the most. It took about ten minutes for me to fall in love with Everett and Fay. Their developed personalities, the way they're written, the way the bounce off each other, and the easy-going, full-bodied performances the actors give all adds up to what won me over about this tale. Even though I kept searching for more, the movie never failed to convey what it wanted, and without ever going overboard. No slamming ideas on your head. No blatant exposition. No overacting. The craft is undeniable.

The movie is as perfect as it set out to be. It achieved what it intended, and I applaud it for that. For me though, there was something wanting. Something that's hard to pinpoint. I watched the movie over again to think it through, and liked it even better, but it was still there. Or, not there. What it lacked for me, was a moment of truth. A thematic conclusion; a reason for the story to have been told. And I think the movie did intend there to be one. It's spoilers so I won't say, but like the rest of the movie, it was subtle, and implied, but clear. Still, I felt a lack. I wanted more. Because the movie holds your attention so well and because the characters are so lovable, that lack doesn't destroy the film. Still it frustrates me to think of what might have been.

If it had been made more for my sensibilities, this could've been a new favorite. But in a way, it still is. 

2020 is an oddball year to put it lightly, and this is the first new film in a full two months that I'm certain to remember by the end of the year. Personal lack or not, this movie gave me joy and is extremely welcome. There are some technical aspects to it that I'd like to see how it was done. The tone is both familiar and old-fashioned. It builds smoothly to a visceral climax, always with a frantic undercurrent that keeps you engaged. And though I still want more out of the conclusion, I can't deny that it fits with the rest of the film and the goals it set for itself. So -- what if a 50's era scifi B-movie, artistically? That sounds like a sound worth hearing!

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