The film opens at a high school basketball game. The entire town is in the stands. Lanky players lope around the court. Cheerleaders do cartwheels on the sidelines. Two high school kids, Everett (Jake Horowitz) and Fay (Sierra McCormick), leave the game and walk across the deserted town to their nighttime jobs. He hosts a nightly radio show, and she mans the town switchboard. Once ensconced at their jobs, they realize something strange is going on. There’s interference in the radio signals. She notices calls are cutting out. A weird sound comes through the line, a sound Fay doesn’t recognize. She calls Everett and plays it for him. He doesn’t know what it is either. A woman calls the switchboard, screaming through the static about something weird going on on the outskirts of town. But Fay can’t hear her through the fuzz. Fay and Everett are both technology nerds. They decide to figure out what is going on.
All of this is familiar territory to anyone who has seen “The Blob,” “The X-Files,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “The Twilight Zone,” you name it. The trappings of the genre are present, and writers James Montague and Craig W. Sanger don’t shy away from any of it. They even place the entire film within a framing device of a black-and-white TV showing an episode of the “Paradox Theatre Hour.” This is just one of the distancing techniques in operation. The audience is kept at a slight remove. You notice it right away in the opening sequence, a long meandering take, following Everett and Fay as they walk through the gym and then outside into the parking lot, talking the whole time. The most obvious thing right off the bat is that there are no close-ups, nothing to familiarize us with the characters. Their dialogue is fast and overlapped, ridden with slang (“Razzle my berries.” “Cut the gas, cube”), and it takes some time to figure out what they’re talking about. This continues during their walk across the empty town, the camera stalking them from behind, gliding along creepily at street level.
But a funny thing happens during this opening sequence. In a way, the whole thing is alienating. It refuses to let you in. “The Vast of Night” doesn’t come to you. You must go to it. You must submit to its rules, and once you do, it yields tremendous rewards. Patterson’s style, in partnership with cinematographer M.I. Littin-Menz, infuses these well-worn plot points with urgency, creating an overriding mood of strangeness and mystery. By the time Patterson finally gives us close-ups of his two young leads, we already have gotten to know them, just from following them around. It’s old-fashioned in a beautiful way: once upon a time, a close-up really meant something, and close-ups really mean something in “The Vast of Night.”