New on Amazon Prime, “The Vast of Night” could be the test case for how much movie can be squeezed out of the minimal amount of money and experience. A stylish, beautifully atmospheric tale of sci-fi doings in a sleepy 1950s town, it’s the debut feature from Andrew Patterson, an Oklahoma-based director of TV commercials. Screenwriters James Montague and Craig W. Sanger are first-timers, too, and the cast could hardly be less well-known. Yet not only does this bares-bones “Close Encounters” make a virtue out of found locations and empty night-time streets, it has the confidence of a story sure in its telling. It feels original.
A framing device puts us into the proper retro mood: a tracking shot into a 1950s TV set showing a faux-“Twilight Zone” show called “Paradox Theater” that widens out into the movie itself. We’re in Cayuga, N.M., pop. Not What It Used To Be, and the whole town has turned out for the first high school basketball game of the season. The opening scenes feel rushed and confusing: Patterson plunges us into the bustle before the big game and has his characters chatter at each other in rapid-fire bursts. It takes a while to get our bearings and only then by following Everett (Jake Horowitz), a reedy, slightly arrogant electronics whiz who’s the smartest kid in town and knows it.
Everett is the nighttime DJ at the local radio station on the edge of Cayuga, and a long walk there with Fay Crocker (Sierra McCormick), a younger schoolmate who helps her mother run the town switchboard, establishes his ambitions and her eager naivete.
Then odd things start happening. Everett’s broadcast is interrupted by a mysterious transmission that sounds a little like an alien motorboat. A listener who recognizes it phones in with a long tale of working on a secret government project out in the desert. An urban legend about a passenger train found emptied of its passengers is mentioned. Calls into Fay’s switchboard are cut off for no reason.
“The Vast of Night” gathers us in slowly, along with its lead characters. It’s a smart move setting the story in the late 1950s, before UFOs became a pop culture trope, and part of the film’s eeriness comes from watching Everett and Fay gradually realize what’s going on. No, it’s not the Commies.
By having the whole town at that basketball game, Patterson effectively isolates his leads as they dash about Cayuga, stealing bicycles and cars as necessary, and getting closer to the heart of the mystery. There’s a visit to an eccentric recluse (Gail Cronauer) with a tale to tell — she may remind you of Melinda Dillon from “Close Encounters” as an old lady — and the film just parks itself in a chair next to her and listens, as do Fay and Everett, with impatient politeness.
What really makes “The Vast of Night” work isn’t the film’s climax — which is fine and creepy, if more obviously hampered by budget limitations — but the two main characters and the dynamic that grows up between them. Everett and Fay start the film as a cool know-it-all in Buddy Holly glasses and a guileless 16-year-old girl wearing cat-eyes. By midpoint, they’re united in chasing down a puzzle that keeps widening into the night and the unknown. By the final scenes, they’re the only two people on Earth who know what’s going on.
“The Vast of Night” doesn’t play this as a love story but as a coming of age for the leads and for American culture as a whole. Over the course of this nervy little movie, Everett and Fay step from the certainties of the Eisenhower era into a new dawn of conspiracy, secrecy, and justified paranoia. In other words, what we call home.
THE VAST OF NIGHT
Directed by Andrew Patterson. Written by James Montague and Craig W. Sanger. Starring Jake Horowitz, Sierra McCormick, Gail Cronauer. Available on Amazon Prime. 90 minutes. PG-13 (brief strong language).