Not much happens in Cayuga, New Mexico.
Downtown’s just a block or two long. Most everyone is on a first-name basis. Make a call on your 1950s dial phone, and you might talk to Fay, Cayuga’s 16-year-old switchboard operator. Tune in your AM dial to its only radio station, and you’ll hear Everett “The Maverick” Sloan, playing a steady dose of highway hits after dark.
It’s a sleepy town filled with sleepy lives, the sort of place that news forgot. And for the most part, that’s the way they like it.
But tonight, with most of the town cheering on the local basketball team, Fay hears another noise—one she can’t explain.
The noise is hard to describe: Fay’s never heard anything like it, certainly not over the radio or phone lines. So she calls up Everett, who’s spinning records for his “five listeners” at WOTW. He listens and says he’s never heard it, either—and he’s heard plenty of weird feedback on the airwaves. He speculates it might be some sort of foreign correspondence. Maybe code from the Soviets.
But it’s good to get a second opinion about such things. So Everett decides to put the noise on air. To see if his five listeners have an idea, he says.
“Sure you won’t get in trouble?” Fay asks.
“Don’t care,” Everett says. “This is good radio.”
Sure enough, he gets a caller. Billy, he says. Yes, he heard the noise once before, when he was doing some grunt work for the military. They flew him and a bevy of others to a secret location filled with underground labs. They told his crew to dig a hole, so they did—broad and deep and square. Next morning, that hole was filled by … something, bigger than an airplane and covered by a massive tarp. They built a roof over the thing, whatever it was, and then Billy and his fellow workers were flown home. The last thing Billy saw of that super-secret facility were workers covering the runway with dirt, “like we never been there.”
Billy heard that sound then, from that strange thing under the tarp. The same sound Fay heard over the phone.
Not much happens in Cayuga, New Mexico.
Or, at least, that’s what they want you to think.
Fay may be just 16, but she seems pretty responsible all the same. She loves science and excels at school. She’s terribly enthusiastic about some of the futuristic things she’s read about in her science mags—outrageous inventions like self-driving cars and pocket-sized TVs that double as phones. She seems like she’s a big help for her harried single mom, too, taking care of her infant baby sister with a level-headed devotion. And while she longs to leave sleepy little Cayuga, she refuses to even consider it until Esther (the baby) has grown quite a bit.
Everett doesn’t think much of Fay’s speculative inventions. Pocket TVs? “Cuckoo,” he says. He’s not always kind to the people around him—almost as if he has to make good on his “Maverick” persona as only a young, 1950s-era youth can. But he does try to teach Fay a thing or two about her new tape recorder. And when they start pursuing this secret noise, he grows ever more protective of her.
We should also, perhaps, call attention to Billy and another character who come forward with what they know about the noise. It’s rather brave, when you think about it. At the very least, they might risk public ridicule. At most, they risk a knock on the door from the Men in Black. Either way, it takes courage to talk about things that some would rather stay quiet.
At the beginning of the movie, Everett is called to the local gym and is asked by the sports radio guy whether he can re-use an old reel-to-reel tape.
“You read the Bible?” Everett asks him. When the guy says he does, Everett snidely says, “There’s your answer,” because the Bible has answers for everything.
A character utters lines over and over again in an unfamiliar language. “I’m not some witch, I promise,” the woman reassures her guests. But the woman, Mabel Branch, does say that those words were originally spoken by someone later called, in embellished local legend, the “Old Horse Witch.” (The words themselves, though not apparently of diabolic origin, do seem to have some sort of power over some who hear them.)
There’s a brief reference to the occult. Someone mentions a Methodist minister.
Mabel Branch gave birth to a child out of wedlock. She says the whole episode surprised her. Referring to sex, she says, “I didn’t know that was how you made a baby, believe it or not.”
A friend of Fay’s steps out with a beau, apparently, while she’s supposed to be babysitting. While Fay and Everett are purely platonic friends during the film, we see some small hints that their relationship could develop into something more. Fay tells Everett that he might have more luck with the ladies “if you wouldn’t be a jerk all the time.”
We don’t see any real violence on screen, but we do hear about people getting sick in connection with the strange noise. We also hear stories about a man who dies while hanging electrical lights, and a squirrel (some say chipmunk) that electrocuted itself while chewing through some electrical wires. Townspeople say they discovered the rodent’s skeleton—the wires still clenched in its little bony teeth.
Grass and trees bear mysterious scorch marks. A car filled with passengers has several close calls on the road. We hear stories about strange disappearances, including one involving a 9-year-old boy: It was suspected at the time that the boy’s mother murdered the kid.
One f-word and a smattering of other, milder profanities, including “a–,” “d–n” and “h—.” God’s name is misused three times, twice with the word “d–n.”
Everett and Fay both smoke cigarettes at times (though Fay initially says she doesn’t when Everett encourages her to hold one as a “prop”).
Everett talks someone into handing over his trombone, then secretly locks it in a locker. Everett steals a car. Fay steals a bike. Both run away (sometimes literally) from their respective job posts; but given the circumstances, perhaps we can understand why.
Fay informs a fellow operator that the basketball team Cayuga High will be playing has “a bunch of Indian boys, four or five of them. … When they put on their uniforms, they look like grownups.” The other operator laments that Cayuga will surely lose then—hastily saying that it has nothing to do with the opposing players being Native Americans.
We hear about other forms of racism, too, along with government cover-ups. Everett’s radio station regularly gives out swatches of “Elvis’s carpet,” which he later tells Fay is just a ruse. Everett sometimes treats people with barely concealed distain and teaches Fay how to politely (if dishonestly) walk away from uninteresting conversations/interviews.
Dropping during the crazy season of the coronavirus, The Vast of Night sports an unusual release strategy: Amazon Prime is rolling it out to drive-in movie theaters While also releasing it on its own streaming platform.
Drive-ins are considered relics of an earlier, more innocent age, and in a way, this movie is, too. Set in the late 1950s—sometime after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, but not much after—The Vast of Night is filled with bobby socks and tailfins, of Cold War paranoia and reel-to-reel tapes. In fact, the whole movie is presented as an episode of a Twilight Zone-like TV show, with flickering black-and-white images on tiny TV screens spliced between the movie’s more traditional cinematography.
You can even trace the movie’s DNA deeper into the past, back to old-time radio dramas: So much of the “action” is simply people talking—over the phone, over the airwaves. And to heighten this sense, sometimes what we see vanishes entirely. We’re left with words and sounds, rolling across the black screen.
It is, frankly, a pretty impressive bit of moviemaking—something that feels quite new even as it feels quite old. It pulls us in like good storytelling should, mostly eschewing the splashy crutches of sprawling sets and CGI. This Night may indeed be vast. But this movie, focusing on two small-town kids in small-town America, feels intimate in a way that sci-fi films rarely attempt.
Speaking of crutches, it throws away two others for the most part: sex and violence. We feel the movie’s central, threatening dangers more than we see them. And any would-be romance is tabled in light of the night’s adventure. All of the movie’s suspense and peril feels like a snapping turtle lurking in murky water … there, but unseen, and all the more threatening because of it.
Certainly, The Vast of Night is no relic of the 1950s-era Hays Code, which legally prohibited problematic content from showing up on screen. We hear some bad language, bad behavior and a few smirking asides.
But The Vast of Night’s footprint is more than that, because its makers know how to spin a good story. And it proves, once again, that good stories don’t need bad content. They don’t need a nine-figure budget. All they need is a strong plot, characters you care about and a lot of creativity. And I’d love to see more stories like this.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.