TOO LATE is Hit and Miss – Fantastic Fest

Our own Alex Williams saw and reviewed this film out of LAFF. You can read that here.

The craft is the story is the craft.

The John Hawkes-led neo-noir Too Late has a number of affectations which might at first seem little more than self-satisfied gimmickry. The film is made up of five acts, and each of those acts is depicted through a single tracking shot. Too Late was also shot entirely in 35 mm film, and each of the acts constitutes one full reel. Per writer/director Dennis Hauck, the film will only play theatrically in 35 mm projection.

There’s been a lot of conversation about these technical attributes here at Fantastic Fest, and with good reason. The hazy, romantic feel of 35 mm film is perfect for its time-displaced story of a detective lost within his own life, and the flickering snap of projected film augments the idea of the film as a memory, something lost and recalled now only in pieces and moments. Best of all are the cigarette burns. You know: those little black circles that appear in the top right corner of the screen to indicate a reel-change. With Too Late, the cigarette burns take on an almost totemic power. Characters move intractably towards doom and heartbreak, and the cigarette burns are a kind of countdown to the point of no return.

Which of course is what a movie with the title Too Late is about. A detective film that skips the detecting to focus on a select few scenes of such a story, Too Late has a set-up that will feel familiar to fans of the detective genre. Dorothy (Crystal Reed) is a young stripper in a spot of trouble with some tough customers, so she reaches out to the grizzled-but-sensitive private investigator Sampson (John Hawkes) who was kind to her once upon a time. Sampson is too late (natch) to save Dorothy, but he sets out on a mission to locate her murderers and extract vengeance.

Too Late is formed of five scenes surrounding the murder and Sampson’s quest, depicted in a nonlinear fashion that allows the most devastating moments to sneak up on you when you are most unawares.

It’s impossible to escape the Quentin Tarantino comparisons, and Hauck does himself no favors with his various needle drops, with the extended speechifying his script favors, or his casting of folks like Robert Forster and Sydney Tamiia Poitier. Most ill-advised are the pop culture-related banter and self-aware meta-commentary within the dialogue, which come across as tin-eared on the page and brutally mishandled by some of the actors. The opening conversation between Rider Strong and Dash Mihok is the most galling offender, a seemingly endless banter about Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, is so arch and so falsely played as to be unbearable. Fortunately, Hauck drops that stuff and while much of the dialogue has a stylized touch, it’s not insufferably self-conscious and arch.

Hauck is better-suited to the quieter moments, and my favorite segments of the film were the ones that had the least to do with the central mystery and put the focus on Hawkes and our gradual evolution of understanding of this broken, damned man. If John Hawkes had been around in the ’70s he would have been a movie star, but the times have relegated him to character actor. He’s consistently phenomenal in smaller roles, but Too Late makes a strong case for Hawkes as leading man. Each section of the film is a movie unto itself, and Hawkes modulates his performance for each movement of the story. There are times when Sampson is a hard-faced badass, but there are other times when Hawkes face betrays the weary, broken heart at the core of this man, and it is shattering each time.

Other performers are hit and miss. Jeff Fahey and Robert Forster aren’t given much of anything to do and may have taken this movie primarily because the script requires them to be sitting the whole time. Dichen Lachman, like Hawkes, is a consistently under-used talent and she manages to suggest entire other movies in the space between her appearances. She’s great. Vail Bloom and Natalie Zea go big and broad with their portrayals of ruined women with key roles in the story’s progression, while Reed only fitfully seems to have a handle on Hauck’s script.

Too Late comes dangerously close to collapsing under its own affectations, but Hauck and Hawkes (sounds like a buddy cop duo, no?) pull it out in the end. The heartbreak so essential to noir is given terrible weight, and many of my fellow film-goers admitted to spending most of the final section of the movie as a blubbering mess.

I have no idea what sort of distribution Too Late can secure with the ‘only in 35 mm’ mandate. Presumably it will find its way to home video with relative ease, and it will be well-worth the viewing in any format. If you do get the chance to see it on film, do so. It’s a bold and gorgeous film, with a haunting core that overpowers any missteps.

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the author

Brendan Foley lives in Massachusetts, where he has made a habit out of not knowing what he's doing. He'd like to make a career out of it. You can follow his ramblings on Twitter: @TheTrueBrendanF, and his ramblinger ramblings on Tumblr. Three years from now, it will be revealed that he was dead the entire time.