The Vast of Night’s engrossing enigma gives way to over-familiarity

In this sci-fi set in 1950s New Mexico, a young switchboard operator and a radio DJ pick up a strange frequency on the airwaves. As Liam Maguren observes, its flashes of brilliance helped The Vast of Night to film fest acclaim, but its destination feels overly familiar.

Rejected by the likes of Sundance and SXSW, The Vast of Night became the talk of the town at Slamdance and Overlook. Winning the top award at both those film festivals, director Andrew Patterson’s punchy nugget of a debut made heads turn (including Steven Soderberg’s). Powered by mystery and intrigue, Patterson applies small-scale flashes of filmmaking brilliance to a story that can’t quite keep up with him.

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The film takes place over one night in a convincingly-dressed small American town during the late 1950s. Everyone’s at the local basketball game, leaving fast-talking radio DJ Everett (Jake Horowitz) and 16-year-old switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) largely alone when they suddenly intercept a strange radio frequency. To say more about the plot would sully its effect.

Patterson proves himself a magnificent layer of narrative breadcrumbs, trusting the actors (Horowitz and McCormick make for lively leads) and the dialogue (including excellent ’50s slang like “double-dealin’ devil-dog”) to drive the central mystery. Certain close-up shots linger for minutes on end, placing sharp focus on the compelling conversations that leak pieces of the puzzle. While that’ll prove enticing to fans of chamber thrillers like Locke and The Guilty, The Vast of Night willingly moves beyond its confined settings when it needs to. At one point, the camera lets loose like an excited dog off the lead for an unbroken shot that delivers a superb sense of place as it soars through the town.

Disappointingly, for all the wonder conjured by the engrossing and enigmatic narrative, the story leads to a place that feels painfully stale and familiar. In a way, the movie prepares you for what’s ahead with an opening that presents The Vast of Night as an episode of a retro sci-fi show (even its writers, James Montague and Craig W Sanger, are credited for their “teleplay”). That might be fine with those looking for an old-old-old-school treat, but with filmmaking this cinematic, its Twilight Zone ambitions feel oddly misplaced.