TOO LATE, crime drama, not rated, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3c hiles
Five scenes make up writer/director Dennis Hauck’s first feature-length effort, each shot on 35 mm film, each presenting a single continuous take of around 20 minutes. This ambitious technical composition begs a viewer’s judgment: Is Too Late more than the sum of its gimmicks?
Each act opens on a damsel in a distinct state of distress and/or undress. These damsels each presently encounter Sampson (John Hawkes of
Winter’s Bone and HBO’s Deadwood), the seen-it-all, hard-drinking, straight-talking detective who — when not expelling enjoyably overcooked one-liners that could have been stenciled in comic-book speech bubbles — anchors this stylistically ambitious noir.
The film presents a nonlinear unraveling of a crime, reminiscent of Reservoir Dogs (1992), set in near-past Los Angeles (the flip-phone era or thereabouts). In its concurrently discrete and unbroken structuring, the film presents almost as a group of short plays, or one fractured fiveact play. You see how the deed goes down, you learn how the particulars came to be involved (and how they came to be so particular), and you witness the aftermath — the order shuffled so as to keep certain cards hidden until the fifth episode.
The film imparts an appropriately shabby and lived-in feel. It is an ashtray aesthetic that Hauck achieves — bien noir. Everyone party to the variously seedy proceedings has a troubled past, including Sampson himself, and for most of these strippers and crooked businessmen, the present isn’t tip-top, either. This note-perfect tone is accentuated by a dry touch of campiness, the sort of syntax Elmore Leonard affected so well, where nobody’s as smart as they’d like to think, the compelling talky stretches overlaid with dramatic irony.
The continuous takes are a finer line to walk. Birdman (2014) synthesizes an uncut flow into a dizzying, delirious, hallucinatory narrative, and won multiple Oscars for its trouble; at the other pole, single-shot camerawork just might make you dizzy. Hauck’s direction comes out somewhere in between. The narrative is compelling enough that, for long stretches, you forget the camera, which signifies a brilliant job done — as the action is hardly stationary. But when characters are seated in close quarters, you can’t help an ambivalence toward Hauck’s commitment to this visual device.
Hawkes, as ever, is worth the price of admission, and his put-upon, knowing charm ultimately carries Too Late beyond its mechanical embroidery, and Sampson beyond the rote hard-boiled archetype of a private eye. The expressions of his jaded altruism — cause and casualty of the originating crime — carry the narrative from A to B in several single motions, even more so than the camera.
Take five: John Hawkes