The closing credits of Too Late promise that “no hidden cuts were used in the making of this movie” — no small feat given the technical challenge that writer-director Dennis Hauck set for himself, his cast and crew. A contemporary detective drama that draws heavily on the idiom of hard-boiled noir, the feature unfolds in five long scenes, or acts, each one a continuous take of about 20 minutes, and all of it shot on film.
John Hawkes grounds the experiment with his droll, soulful lead turn as Mel Sampson, an emotionally wounded, world-weary but honorable private investigator (is there any other kind?). But with its overt nods to movies, nonlinear structure and purple-tinged dialogue, the self-conscious artifice of Hauck’s first feature can be suffocating. This narrative puzzle should be more fun than it is.
A competition title at the Los Angeles Film Festival, Too Late premiered at the fest in a 35mm print, the better to showcase Bill Fernandez’s sinuous camerawork through evocative locations, shifting levels of light and changing palettes. (A second screening will use digital projection.) Employing the Techniscope format, which yields 22 minutes of footage from each film roll, or twice the standard, the roving shots are a fitting visual strategy for the story of a private eye. A few ostentatious whip pans notwithstanding, they aren’t show-offy, and they push the sense of mystery.
But while Hauck’s ambition and technical daring are undeniable, his approach raises the same gnawing question as do many pictures that play with technique and chronology: Do the impressive camera acrobatics and jigsawed structure enrich the storytelling or simply add complicating layers to a so-so narrative? When the narrative is a vague and unpersuasive whodunit, the answer is a little of both.
Leaping backward and forward in time, the five acts reveal key moments in a case involving a missing young woman. The crime that sparks Sampson’s search is laid out in the opening, pretitle sequence, as is the heightened language that passes for conversation throughout the film. Putting a poetic spin on the tough-talking guys and dolls of yore, Hauck’s dialogue can be exceptionally sharp (an offhand reference to “Marley’s chains”) or painfully arch. Either way, it’s intended as a kind of music. Yet the film’s densely layered sound design, with diegetic music playing nearly nonstop, competes aggressively with the spoken word, undercutting involvement in the story until the final, and least stylized, scene.
Hauck injects just enough weirdness to brush the cobwebs off even the most cliched of his five settings, the obligatory strip club and the well-appointed Hollywood Hills aerie. In the former — especially challenging in terms of timing and choreography — Sampson meets two beauties, one bitter (Dichen Lachman) and one openhearted (Crystal Reed), before heading next door to a music club, where he performs a doleful, lovely after-hours tune (written by Hawkes).
In the hilltop house, he encounters the fatally poisoned marriage of a club owner played by Robert Forster, whose wife (Vail Bloom) is so distraught that she greets Sampson half-naked and remains that way as they bond over their existential angst. Sampson observes that they’re the kind of people who live in the past and the future, not the present. That may be a metacommentary on the movie’s jumbled time frame, but like much of the action, it remains on a meta plane, mimicking but not achieving the full-blooded danger of human interaction.
That’s true of Sampson’s run-ins with well-heeled types in various states of urgency and ennui (Joanna Cassidy, Jeff Fahey, Sydney Tamiia Poitier) and of the shady/cretinous figures (Rider Strong, Dash Mihok, Brett Jacobsen) who show up on the overgrown hiking trail that provides the film’s opening location. The washed-out neutrals of the downtown skyline contrast with the trees’ lurid greens, and the mix of real and unreal is intriguingly established. Unfortunately, the mix grows more unbalanced as the movie proceeds, until a crucial showdown at a drive-in (Carnival of Souls unspooling on the outdoor screen) is reduced to self-indulgent play acting.
Still, Hawkes is fascinating throughout. The final section, in which Natalie Zea delivers strong emotional notes as a client with a long-buried connection to Sampson’s past, makes clear that the true subject of the film is the mystery of his solitude and sorrow. Even while this scene stoops to obvious eleventh-hour exposition, it deepens what came before. Viewers will differ on whether it’s too little too late.
Production companies: Foe Killer Films, Alpha B, Feltner Films
Cast: John Hawkes, Vail Bloom, Joanna Cassidy, Jeff Fahey, Robert Forster, Brett Jacobson, Dash Mihok, Dichen Lachman, Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Crystal Reed, Rider Strong, Natalie Zea, Sally Jaye
Director: Dennis Hauck
Screenwriter: Dennis Hauck
Producers: Alexandra Barreto, Taylor Feltner, Dennis Hauck
Director of photography: Bill Fernandez
Production designers: Theresa Gulesarian, Todd Jeffery
Costume designer: Gillian Zwick
Editor: David Heinz
Composer: Robert Allaire
No rating, 107 minutes