In the history of baseball, only 29 hitters have ever cracked a home run off the very first pitch they saw in the Major Leagues. With his debut feature The Vast of Night (now streaming free on Amazon Prime), director Andrew Patterson has accomplished an equivalent feat in the film world—walking confidently up to the plate and absolutely crushing it his first time out.
Produced on a shoestring (sub-$1 million) budget but looking every bit the part of a top-shelf film, The Vast of Night would have been correctly hailed as a visionary masterwork had it been helmed by any number of established directors (including, for example, Steven Soderbergh, who called the film “extraordinary” after a recent festival screening). However, when you take into account the fact that this is Patterson’s first film, the achievement is that much more remarkable. Mesmerizing cinematography, unconventional filmmaking, polished performances (by relatively unknown actors), and a subtle yet haunting score all combine in a nearly perfect display of cinematic wonder.
Set in November 1958 in small-town New Mexico, Night is a slow-burn sci-fi thriller framed as an episode of Paradox Theater (read, The Twilight Zone). As the whole town is gearing up for the big high school basketball game, local radio deejay Everett (a rock-solid Jake Horowitz) and spunky student Fay (an inspired Sierra McCormick) are heading off to their graveyard shift jobs—she’s the town’s switchboard operator, and he’s the host of the overnight rock-’n-roll show. Early in the evening, her phone lines start lighting up with calls about mysterious things in the sky, and then folks start dialing into the radio station with similar reports, all of which leads Fay and Everett to become sidekicks in an effort to untangle a gripping sci-fi mystery.
The Vast of Night is one of those films that instantly pulls you in, and not only into the story as it unfolds but into the overall production. If the marks of good cinema are (A) that it sends you scurrying to the internet to look up everything you can about it, (B) that you can’t fight the desire to watch it again and again (while finding new twists with each viewing), and (C) that you feel compelled to tell the world about it, then The Vast of Night is nothing short of great cinema.
With the firm foundation of a clever script (which Patterson co-wrote—under the alias “James Montague”—alongside Craig Sanger), the director gifts us with film made with the confidence and the technical savvy of a seasoned vet; it’s eerily reminiscent of J.J. Abrams’ 2011 winner Super 8 and even Spielberg’s 1978 classic Close Encounters. The rat-a-tat dialogue has an Aaron Sorkin-esque feel to it, and the muted color palette and inventive cinematography by M.I. Littin-Menz help elevate the film higher than the UFOs at the outskirts of its story.
Of particular note are several beautifully-choreographed tracking shots—including a mid-film gem that traverses the entire town (including the big game) in a single, four-plus-minute shot—as well as even more inventive tactics, including prolonged fade-to-black segments as a radio caller (Bruce Davis) relates a harrowing story to Everett.
Patterson also edited the film himself (though using an alias again—this time it’s “Junius Tully”) and delicately balances the extended shots with a kinetic frenzy of several quick-cut sequences. And the moody score by Erick Alexander and Jared Bulmer provides the perfect amount of atmosphere—it’s the final piece of a very, very delightful puzzle.
Though steeped in easter-eggy homages to everything from The Twilight Zone to The War of the Worlds to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the film is undeniably still a one-of-a-kind original (along with being wildly entertaining… and worthy of not one but multiple viewings). It is also, we can hope, a clear harbinger of even more phenomenal things to come from its newbie director. Welcome to the big leagues, rookie.