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Andrew Patterson's The Vast of Night and the OTP of Fay and Everett

Jake Horowitz as Everett and Sierra McCormick as Fay in THE VAST OF NIGHT.

For anyone who gravitates toward Atomic Age Americana, Andrew Patterson's The Vast of Night offers a heady cocktail which may have viewers asking for a double. With storytelling techniques adopted from radio dramas and classic speculative television series, intentional and skillful use of the camera, era-appropriate, wise-cracking dialogue, and the chemistry of its two main characters, this low-budget film festival darling has quickly grabbed larger attention since it's inclusion in Amazon Prime streaming services in May of 2020.  

The Plot

On an evening when living in the small town of  Cayuga, New Mexico, means going to the high school basketball game, young adults Fay (Sierra McCormick; "Curb Your Enthusiasm") and Everett (Jake Horowitz) both have to work. Fay is a switchboard operator and Everett is the local DJ at WOTW radio (a clever nod to H.G. Wells' iconic science fiction novel War of the Worlds). When Fay hears a strange humming noise interrupt Everett's radio broadcast, the two work together to figure out what's causing the noise and what it means. What starts out as just another evening in sleepy town Cayuga will change how Fay and Everett see the world forever. 

Who's Who in the Movie Crew

The Vast of Night is directed by first-time filmmaker Andrew Patterson, with a screenplay written by first-time screenwriters James Montague (Patterson's pseudonym) and Craig W. Sanger. Internationally-acclaimed cinematographer Miguel Ioann Littin Menz (Hands of Stone) is largely responsible for creating the look Patterson envisioned on-screen. With a budget of $700,000, Patterson did all the filming in less than four weeks. Having constraints on time and budget can create stress for any filmmaker, but luckily for Patterson, these constraints appear to have only enabled his creativity in bringing this story to life. Interviews done after TIFF, for instance, record Patterson remembering that while he and the crew were busy creating some of the more sophisticated shots, Sierra McCormick (Fay) was in a motel room, learning how to operate a switchboard like a pro. 

Everett shows colleague how to use recorder.
Jake Horowitz as Everett instructs colleague in THE VAST OF NIGHT. 

Setting Up the Metafictional Universe

The movie begins with mysterious music and an up-close blurry picture of sound waves, as if we are watching an audio visualizer. Next, a slow pan towards a midcentury television set invites us to sit down and watch the latest episode of Paradox Theater (with title credits that callback to original episodes of "The Twilight Zone"), titled, "The Vast of Night." With minimal exposition, viewers know now that what we hear will be just as important, if not more valuable, than what we see. Starting with the callbacks to radio and classic television also sets a playful tone. It's all for entertainment, after all, and we shouldn't expect to have all the secrets revealed and tied with a neat bow. Many critics have harped upon the fact that the ending is unclear and a letdown. Viewers who set their expectations to fit the established prologue are more likely to feel satisfaction by the end.

Leisurely Beginnings: Just Another Day

The first 18 minutes are spent following Everett and Fay around town. Everett arrives at the local gym to help set up the audio recording of the game. At his brief stop, he catches up on the local gossip about which type of critters have been chewing wires and picks up a disciple. Fay Crocker desperately wants Everett to show her how to use her brand new Westinghouse tape recorder (purchased right from the Montgomery Ward catalog, no less). Everett doesn't mind showing her the ropes -- the man loves an audience -- and wastes no time asking Fay to whip out that microphone and start recording, scat. Everett's coaching requires innocent bystanders to stop eating dinner to answer questions he spoon-feeds to Fay. ("Ask them if they have ever heard 'bacon, bacon 940' in a war movie; go on"). One good thing about Everett, he doesn't tell Fay the rules, he just demonstrates as the exercise continues, encouraging her to keep the participant talking, no matter what, and showing her just how to handle a conversation going nowhere. 

As the conversation continues on from the gym parking lot towards the now deserted streets, their conversation shifts from interviewing random neighbors to sharing their personal thoughts about the world and what is possible within the realms of science, describing inventions that sound similar to cellphones and GPS navigators. During this opening sequence of the unhurried stroll to work, the camera follows the pair using long shots. We watch them as viewers, but we aren't particularly concerned about what they are doing. We just observe, walking with them, in a way. In his TIFF interviews, Patterson mentions he thought of this science fiction with the dialogue of a Richard Linklater (Before Trilogy) movie. It's a 24-hour story that doesn't last 24 hours. Although not much happens, all of this spying onto their conversations allows us to get to know quite a bit about Fay and Everett by the time he drops her off at work. Once the real action begins, we have built up a rapport with these two and need no more character development to understand why they do what they do. We know them, and we like them together, imperfections and all. 

Fay and Everett interview a passerby.
Everett (Jake Horowitz) shows Fay (Sierra McCormick) how to end an interview in VAST OF NIGHT.

"What's the Tale, Nightingale?" and Other Stuff Everett Says

The dialogue begins with Everett's wise-cracking, fast-talking commentary, often taking jabs at whoever happens to be in the vicinity. Everett's speech, which Fay begins to emulate before long, includes period-appropriate colloquialisms, such as "Cut the gas, cube. You were a mile wide," and "Cool it, Clyde." While Fay gets comfortable being on tape, Everett asks her to finish a line from Gunsmoke, a 1950s radio drama: "There's only one way to handle the killers and the spoilers, and that's with a U.S. Marshall and the smell of 'Gunsmoke.'" When Everett lies to a man he found boring to get him to stop talking, Fay picks up the vibe and calls Everett a "double-dealing devil dog." The jargon and pacing further bring viewers into the time period. Other times, the script contains dead-pan humor, although it's unclear whether the humor is intentional. As the two speculate about what's happening later in the film, Everett states it's the Russians, for sure, because Cayuga is where they would enter. "No doubt, Southern border." Hello? Russia is North, right? 

The Shot Tells the Tale: Purposeful Camera Choices

As the story shifts from establishing the building blocks to capturing the mystery that will occupy our leads for the rest of the movie, the camera shifts from long shots to medium and close up shots, turning more attention to the way the characters are thinking and feeling about what is happening. We see how Fay's forehead wrinkles when she can't find her sister and how her mouth perks up into a smile when she hears Everett's voice reminding listeners where they can get late nights snacks after the game. We see Everett's practiced "can't shock me" face register and mask surprise multiple times. Throughout the movie, the shots the director chooses to take match perfectly to what is needed in the story at that time. 

At times, Patterson makes the experimental choice to fade or completely cut to black. During these moments, the viewer is forced to lean in and listen to the sound or story being told, again hearkening to the radio dramas of old. During key times of transition, the screen changes from live-action color to the grainy black-and-white television of the beginning, serving as a commercial break and/or reminder that we are still in Paradox Theater. Viewers are encouraged to notice the little details that others might miss. Each person we meet and action taken seems purposefully chosen and brought to importance at just the right time. For 10 minutes, Fay does nothing but operate a switchboard with impressive precision. Later on, we see Everett thread reel-to-reel tapes through a machine for five minutes straight. These carefully orchestrated scenes are done in such a nonchalant way, while the characters are holding completely separate conversation, bringing us into the story and cementing how similar Fay and Everett are. 

The money shot that has drawn the attention of every critic is an almost four-minute tracking shot through the town. As Sierra steps outside the switchboard room to enjoy a cigarette, the camera begins a purposeful trek through Main Street, through backyards, over fences, past dimly lit porches, and towards the high school. After a pan around the crowded gym, the camera rises up into the bleachers, back down to the ground and ends at the radio station, where Everett also smokes, gazing at the night sky. Many critics praise the shot yet question its purpose. In order to capture this shot, a cameraperson lay flat on a golf cart going 40 mph, borrowed from a local farmer. Not only is the shot fun, but it creates a geography for this small, sleepy town. We already know that everyone is at the ball game, but this lovingly created tracking shot establishes that Fay and Everett alone will witness and experience the events about to unfold in Cayuga. Fay and Everett are special -- they stop and listen, they have big dreams, they remain on alert (he for the big story; she for a chance to see something outside home). They expect the impossible to happen. Both perhaps feel quite isolated from others because of their differences but their vigilant minds will be "rewarded" before the evening is over. 

Fay hears the strange sound.
Fay hears the strange sound interrupt Everett's broadcast in VAST OF NIGHT.

Diving Deeper into Fay and Everett

While all of these elements draw attention and make the film worth watching, nothing would work without the chemistry and charisma of our two leads. Everett appears to be the one in charge. He's older and seems to have things all figured out. He has a respectable job at the radio station and has developed a skill set that is valued by those around him. He may be the only person who knows how to operate sound equipment, and the school definitely needs him to help record those games that are essential to the operation of the town. Yet for all of his bravado, Everett telegraphs his need for affirmation. He's what they call a mouth. He talks just because he can. Talking helps him establish his personae and importance to those around him. His identity as a mouth works great as a radio DJ but often comes across as insensitive to those around him. And although he talks plenty, it's not clear that many actually listen to what he says. 

Enter Fay. From the beginning, Fay feels admiration for Everett and wants to soak up his knowledge through careful observations and questions. She is happy to follow him around, take his advice, and let him boss her around. She defers to his age and experience with recording equipment. Her scientific, curious brain notices things that others might miss, and her imagination prompts her to look for answers in academic journals. She longs to leave the town one day, maybe when her sister is older, so that she can work a "bigger board." Although she defers to Everett maybe because of social norms or just because he's older, but it's easy to see that Fay is quite capable and quick-thinking. She knows people are counting on her and takes her job quite seriously, getting upset when she forgets to do something as promised. It's Fay who knows how to break into the library and find the tapes the pair needs to investigate leads. 

Then, a turning point happens when we go from Fay following around Everett to Everett chasing Fay. Turns out, she can run quite fast and isn't used to riding in cars. And suddenly Everett seems to need her. He goes from calm, cool, and collected, to swearing and yelling, trying to keep up with Fay. Turns out Everett the Mouth needs an Ear like Fay to function well, or, at least, he seems to think so. And, by the end of the night, he will put her safety over other concerns. The progression of Everett and Fay's friendship from tangential to essential endears my heart to this pair, regardless of romantic status. 

Mabel Blanche tells her story.
Gail Cronauer as Mabel Blanche in VAST OF NIGHT.

Concluding Thoughts

All in all, The Vast of Night is a celebration of storytelling and artistry, demonstrating what is possible even on a shoestring budget. Patterson's diligence in bringing this story to life should be appreciated, especially at a time when theaters are closed and streaming content is widely available. Although the ending is cited as the weakest part, Patterson made an atomic-era science fiction. Viewers should remember that at that time, cultural expectations of what UFOs and alien life looked like were not established. It was enough to know "the truth is out there." The ending makes perfect sense for the type of story Patterson has reminded us Vast is, all along. 

Final score: 4.5 out of 5

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