The Vast of Night

The Vast of Night ★★★

Everyone seems to be saying that the framing device is a meaningless nod to The Twilight Zone, but at its core The Vast of Night is all about hearing—and more specifically, recording—the stories of the unheard, all about uncovering stories of disenfranchised previous generations and etching them into magnetic audio-recording tape for future listeners. It is all about old stories, so of course presenting it as an episode of an old show makes sense.

The film is structured around two interviews in which Fay and Everett try to figure out what's going on in their small town, interviews which the movie goes to great pains to remind us are being recorded, whether it's Everett interrupting Billy to verbally remind him or the close-ups on his microphone when they're listening to Mabel. Billy explains why he called into Everett's radio show, "I suppose I'm telling you because I'm sick, and I'm old, and nobody listens to us." All Mabel wants is for them to take a message to her son.

These are people who have no voice, no say in how things are done, and the project of the film is to have those voices heard, to record them for posterity, so it makes perfect sense to me that the film is framed as an episode of Not The Twilight Zone, at least from the perspective of someone who thinks The Twilight Zone is also a collection of stories that themselves are losing their voice, losing their influence as we push on farther and farther away from the physical media of mag tapes into the unknown ethereal realm of digital streaming.

It's this anxiety about what's being lost in the transition between generations of storytellers, whether those storytellers are people or recordings of them. The Vast of Night was shot on 35mm and is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen, the very essence of big screen cinema, so it's no small irony that people are watching this at home on Amazon Prime.

Maybe the movie is right, maybe old methods of storytelling are dying off, not literally abducted by aliens but lost all the same, a tape recorder left behind in the dust. But if anything, these modern forms of content distribution are more accessible to the voices of the unheard, so as much as I also share this nostalgia for the texture of film, I can't say I'm too afraid for the future.

2019 ranked (festival release)
2020 ranked (wide release)

I really loved the cinematography and editing. The slightly excessive long tracking shots are a bit ostentatious, but as a self-aware piece of indie arthouse kitsch it felt like it was of a piece with the rest of the film. There's also something elegant and finessed in the abrupt shifts from this languid, patient style to the fragmentary quick-cut style. That said, it does feel like it's torn between wanting to be a fast-talking His Girl Friday and something slower, and while the latter worked wonderfully for me, the former felt irritatingly forced.

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