The Vast of Night is a film for the times

Dean Robbins, Allegheny Campus staff

It would be hard to find a more apt circumstance to watch a movie. I worked in a local movie theater before all this happened. And the condition the industry has created is rather crazy. And then came about two months of no theater. But on May 15th, the first theater in the Pittsburgh area reopened. 

I drove with my father out past the airport to the Dependable Drive-In. The movie was to start at 8:20 pm but doors opened at 7 pm. We got there a little past seven. This was a smart move because we were greeted by about a half mile of traffic waiting to get in. After about fifteen minutes of waiting, we turned into the Drive-In. From there, we were greeted by three different lines of cars going to the box office booths. That moved a little faster. It was fair to say that I was a little anxious about the movie selling out. The drive-in was operating on limited capacity—only allowing in half the cars as usual. Plus, I did not know what the limited capacity would look like. This was because I had, surprisingly, never been there before.

We drove to Screen Two and got placed at a prime front row seat a little off to the left. It was already almost full. Around 7:30, we put in our food order. For social distancing, we had to order concessions over an app. When they were done, we walked to the stand to pick them up. Of course, we had to wear our masks. It was a long wait—helped by my 70-year-old copy of The Judas Kiss by Jay Dratler. I have developed a love for vintage pulp paperbacks. Dratler wrote several screenplays including Laura (1944), as well. The story follows a man investigating a suspicious insurance claim. It is pretty good so far. As the movie started, the sun slowly set and the food was still not ready. The sunset really set the stage for the movie, no pun intended. 

Several trailers played for films like Mulan and Tenet. It was surreal seeing the original release dates on the trailers. Front-n-Center played and this was the first time (and likely last time) I was glad to see it. By the time the movie began, it was almost fully dark. The Vast of Night beautifully introduces you to its 50s small town world. The camera slowly pans toward a TV showing the introduction to a Twilight Zone-style show before it brings us into its black-and-white world. Color seeps into the picture as we enter a bustling basketball court. A group of characters run back and forth, spitting out dialogue at a quick pace. It’s really about nothing. “I heard a rat crawling into the scoreboard.” The town is focused on the incoming basketball game but our leads are not. 

They have to get back to their jobs working with the local radio station. Everett (Jake Horowitz) is a late night DJ and Fay (Sierra McCormick) is an operator. Walking home through the vaguely foggy night, Everett tests out Fay’s new recorder. They first paraded around the parking lot as Everett pushes Fay to interview the locals. Then, as they walk alone, Fay opens us—quickly droning about the technology of tomorrow (“They predict that all highways will be electronic by 1990”).  In these early minutes, you really begin to see how good director Andrew Patterson and writers James Montague and Craig W. Sanger really are. And this is their first film. Bolstered by the acting, the subtle character development is some of the best in recent years. 

The film has several long takes, whether of the camera drifting through the quiet town or of actors telling long fireside-type stories. Perhaps the best of these is what sets the plot fully in motion. Fay sits at her switchboard and is managing the calls for Everett’s show. All of a sudden, she hears a strange noise. This sets off Fay on a spree of calling several people. It is a magical movie moment. We get the sense that, while Fay is shy around the locals, she has a well-built network. 

It was around this time that my concessions app notified me the food was ready. I knew this was going to happen. I did not want to miss the movie but I had no choice. I walked to the concession stand near my theater only to be informed that all of the pickups were at another stand further away. After some more walking, I found a line for pickups. I alternated between trying to socially distance and trying not to stand in front of cars. We were required to wear masks. Everyone wore different masks. Many wore woven ones. Others wore those simple green ones. So I saw about five minutes of Trolls: World Tour. Would definitely have seen that if it were in theaters, proper. Is that good? The whole musical genres as fantasy worlds thing kind of appeals to me. What does the industrial experimental world look like? Is it deserted and filled with massive cold machinery? This is why I can’t sleep. 

I juggled the food back to the car. Only divine providence could have stopped me from spilling everything. I had missed a few story beats but nothing major. 

“There’s something in the sky.” This ominous utterance comes later in the film. I could not disagree. Every ten or so minutes, a loud sound could be heard over us. The Dependable Drive-In is near the airport. It only added to the atmosphere. I doubt it did the same for Trolls: World Tour. There is something both scary and cozy about The Vast of Night. You get the sense that the townspeople have problems but have an authentic compassion for each other. A woman named Mabel Blanche (Gail Cronauer) tells a long story at the end of the film’s second act. It is filled with so much trauma and yet so much life. It is told like an old man on his deathbed—recounting his triumphs and mistakes. And at the end of the day, the film is about community and how it works and fails. 

We left the drive-in around 10:30 or so. We drove along the quiet highway to the tune of Midlake’s “Bamnan and Silvercork.” In the window of an office building next to the highway silently sits a sign: #InThisTogether. And that’s the difficult part. The world is like a drive-in. We each listen to the film through our own separate audio systems. We sit in our own cars in our own spaces. But we are all watching the same movie.