It’s hard to shake the influences behind writer/director Dennis Hauck’s feature debut Too Late.
Heavily inspired by the ’80s-’90s works from Martin Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson, Robert Altman and Quentin Tarantino, it’s one of those imitation films that always runs the risk of jeopardizing its own potential by basking in the shadows of its predecessors. And it is, indeed, perhaps just a little too reminiscent of those films — from Jackie Brown to Boogie Nights to Goodfellas — to really stand out on its own, or to become more than an elusive, moody wannabe at times.
But shot and projected entirely in 35mm film, and in a series of five single-shot acts, it’s nevertheless a beauty to behold. Impressive, if quite showy, in its presentation and bleeding with pulp, suave and sophistication, it’s a copycat for sure, but a damn good one — a crisp neo-noir that knows exactly what it wants to be, even if Hauck’s narrative isn’t nearly as strong as his technical showmanship. Proud to be an honest-to-god film, and never one to cut corners, Too Late doesn’t have the staying power of its influences, but it definitely makes an impression.
Sometimes imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, but the film brings enough to the table to earn its own praise — particularly from its endlessly cool, never-less-than-charming lead performance from the great John Hawkes.
Borrowing heavily from Pulp Fiction‘s structure, Too Late disorganizes its five-piece structure to present a puzzle of a film, and one that leaves a surprisingly unexpected twist in its final reel to forgive some of its initial messiness. Starting from the second act, then making our way through to the fourth, then the first, then the fifth and, eventually, to the third, we follow our disheveled, morally-grey private eye lead Sampson (Hawkes) through the broken entanglement he shares with the doe-eyed, “first-generation” stripper Dorothy (Crystal Reed), all around the eve and aftermath of her murder.
Not planning to live his life with any more regrets, he’s determined to get to the bottom of her heinous end — even if that means roughing more than a few people before it’s all said-and-done — as we follow him throughout the disorganized manner in which he plots his revenge. The plot is certainly sloppy, but it knows it. This is not meant to be a clean-and-narrow film in any way, shape and form and, learning well from its peers, it makes the most out of every glance, every grimace and, in true cinephile fashion, every unending inch of celluloid on-screen.
And it’s certainly a technical wonder. Even in a post-Birdman age as we grow more accustomed to long-winded shots and never-ceasing takes, Too Late constantly finds ways to floor us with its filmmaking skill and still enrapture us in its messy web of a story. Learning well from Anderson and Altman, the gritty, sunny, unforgiving-but-constantly-gorgeous LA landscape plays a wonderful character in Hauck’s debut. It immediately bewitches us, capturing not a new side of California but one that’s desperately been missing for fans of this sub-genre.
What the film lacks in originality, it almost always makes up in honed flair. But Too Late does leave us feeling a little cold at times — and thankfully that’s where the performances pick up the slack. Hawkes is an absolute delight to watch, fitting into this character like a well-worn glove and playing up his scruffiness and unusual suave to his advantage. With a cigarette glued to his mouth, a drink always near his side and filled to the brim with quick quips and fast asides, he’s the film’s wounded heart and soul.
Whenever he’s not on screen, his absence is always felt, but Reed, Joanna Cassidy Vail Bloom, Natalie Zea and Brett Jacobsen all turn in impressive supporting turns in their own right. Some more than others, sure, but each get their moment to shine. And everyone does a stellar job keeping up with the intense expectations and precise timing needed to make this film work. But their endless dedication towards making this one work is always sincerely felt.
While Too Late does feel like a pet project made by a film student coming out of the early ’00s, in today’s digital-friendly age, that comes across way more admirable and nostalgic now than it would have 12 years prior. Much like 2012’s Seven Psychopaths, it might be aping on a certain lost art, but it knows what it’s doing and it does it well. There are no half-measures here — unlike some unsuccessful Tarantino-lite films — and its edginess cuts deeper than you’d expect, especially as it goes along. Through there’s nothing here that hasn’t really been done before, it’s best to go into this as cold as possible, because its twisted web of deceit does have some effective stings.
There’s a sense everyone on-screen is aware they’re in a movie and, though this can often come across a little too on-the-nose in the wrong hands, it actually kinda works here. Save for the meta-to-a-fault running commentary from bumbling drug dealers Jesse (Dash Mihok) and Matthew (Boy Meets World‘s Rider Strong), Hauck’s overstated dialogue and his melodramatic cues give a greater sense of purpose when everyone on-screen seems aware of their purpose in the moment. As we grow to learn throughout, Too Late is about owning up to the present — even when your mind is constantly jumping around to the past and future, and in living with this characters through their risks, sweeping monologues and unending interactions, we feel the importance of everything on-screen. It might be a little more than a pale imitation at times, but it feels visceral enough to stand out. And it has its heart and brain in the exact right place.
Too Late runs the danger of being just a little too smug and a little too self-aware, and that often bites it in the ass. Its format is a little self-indulgent, but it does serve a purpose. Though its not quite the masterpiece it wants to be, it succeeds in making a striking impression — and that’s really what counts. It might be easy to write off Hauck’s first filmmaking effort as pompous and self-important, but there’s more on display than style-over-substance.
The director’s name will likely never live on like the filmmakers mentioned above, but he definitely makes his mark regardless. In its 35 mm projection — the only way you can see this film at the moment — it burns with sizzle and spunk, and that’s where it truly owns up to its influences and rides on their coattails. And even in his early start, he makes sure we know he’s a filmmaker to watch for in the years to come. I, for one, can’t wait to see what Hauck does next. What he might lack in substance, he makes up in savvy — and I hope to see his work again on a film projector near me again very, very soon.
It might get a little smug and a wee bit pretentious, but Too Late is never less than impressive.