You’ve seen a lot of movies like Too Late, and yet you haven’t. Shot over several years on 35mm, Dennis Hauck’s neo-noir detective drama is only being shown theatrically in that increasingly rarefied format — a bold financial move for an independent film at a time when so many others open on iTunes. Too Late is divided into five nonlinear segments, each composed of a single continuous take lasting the length of a reel of film (22 minutes).
The first of these uninterrupted shots is also the most masterful. It begins when a woman who’s seen something she shouldn’t have places a call on a cellphone borrowed from two self-reflexive drug dealers. The camera moves away from Dodger Stadium–adjacent Radio Hill and does an extreme zoom toward a run-down apartment building a good mile away, where anxious private investigator Sampson (John Hawkes) seems to be awaiting her call. He abruptly ends the conversation and drives off to meet the young woman after she tells him where she is, and the camera drifts back to the park — though not before lingering on the modest downtown skyline. It’s at once lo-fi and virtuosic, the kind of shot you can imagine a filmmaker dreaming up long before writing an actual script, and more than worth hanging the entire opening around.
The same goes for Hawkes, whose tired detective registers as a latter-day Philip Marlowe — more Elliott Gould than Humphrey Bogart. Hauck wrote Too Late with his leading man in mind, and you’ll believe it when the world-weary P.I. caps one segment off by lamenting “I need to change my life” after narrowly surviving a poolside shootout in the Hollywood Hills. Other lines feel self-consciously florid, like rough-draft Tarantino, and few of the actors deliver them as well as Hawkes does; the talk is meta from the opening exchange involving those two drug dealers right up to Sampson saying, “I know how this movie ends” in the final reel.
This is a quintessential Los Angeles movie, but also a movie movie — there’s a poster for Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 in a projection booth, an entire segment set at a drive-in playing Carnival of Souls and explicit mention of iconic revival houses like the New Beverly and the Egyptian. Hauck wears his influences on his sleeve, but more important, he also proudly displays his ambition: Too Late is the writer-director’s first feature, and he clearly put everything he had into it. Let's hope it won’t also be his last.
The more Too Late becomes about the answers to its whodunnit questions rather than the process, though, the more it begins to feel as if Hauck hasn’t fully absorbed the lessons of the films he adores. Fewer dames could turn up dead along the way, and too many characters wax cinematic about their plight. But like the hardboiled detectives of yore, Too Late ultimately gets the job done — even if it’s in its own off-the-books way.