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Too Late
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by Jay Seaver

"It may be too late to get something so film-centric out, but it's worth it."
4 stars

Ten years ago, "Too Late" would have been compared to the movies of Quentin Tarantino for its fractured timeline and the way pop-culture-laced conversations often climax in violence; today, director Dennis Hauck's quixotic insistence on shooting and exhibiting on actual celluloid film is just as important a point of reference. To the extent that 35mm is now a gimmick, he makes good use of it (and what he does would have been a neat trick at any point), but even when it's eventually allowed to be seen in other formats, it will still work as an entertaining sort of film noir.

That may be the wrong term, though, as half of it takes place out in the bright California sunshine. That's how it starts, at least, with pretty young stripper Dorothy (Crystal Reed) in a park at the top of the hill, calling a private investigator she met one night the years ago, Mel Samson (John Hawkes), looking for help. It seems she's seen something she shouldn't have and is worried what will happen. Despite that, she's still pretty happy to talk to anyone crossing her path, whether it be a couple of small-time drug dealers (Rider Strong & Dash Mihok) or a movie-loving park ranger (Bret Jacobsen). Samson gets there eventually, though, and is soon on the case, whether it takes him to the ranch where Dorothy's boss Gordy Lyons (Robert Forster) is arguing with wife Janet (Vail Bloom) over appropriate attire, or the drive-in run by Jill (Dichen Lachman), a one-time co-worker of Dorothy and Samson's former lover.

The bit which makes 35mm an important part of the movie's presentation is that Too Late is comprised of five vignettes, each running the roughly twenty minutes that can for on a single reel of film, and presented as a single shot without cuts - even when Hauck uses a split screen on occasion, it's done without a break, and the second image is shot so that it could pass as a blow-up of the first. It's some pretty impressive cinematography on the part of Bill Fernandez, because it's far from bolted down, instead snaking through toothy spaces to follow characters in constant motion and move the audience's attention from one area to another. In the first reel, especially, the effect is akin to raising one's head, floating above the scene, and then focusing on something off in the distance. As much as this is technically difficult and demanding for the cast - there's no covering if one moment in the middle of a twenty-minute take doesn't work - it's also impressive how, even though Hauck makes no attempt to hide what he's doing, it stops just short of seeming intrusive, or making the audience wonder just whose perspective it is seeing. Most movies are a sort of guided objectivity, and between the roaming camera and Casey Genton's playful sound design - where songs on the soundtrack get interrupted by doorbells and background noises suddenly get very loud to alert the viewer that something else is going on - Hauck invites the audience to take note of what he's doing, although never quite to the point of disengaging.

The wiring is as much a part of this as the displays of technique, though the two are intertwined: Setting one act in a drive-in gives Rauch a chance to actually make comments about reel changes and using them a structure through his characters, for instance. He also makes the title of the film almost cruelly integral at times; its appearance on-screen is an almost sarcastic rebuke to sun up the previous act, although it arguably becomes the theme to all but one, and as that adds up, the recurring tragedy of the entire film. Hauck peppers his film with good one-liners and monologues that serve to fill viewers in on off-screen events without making it feel like a weakness in the long-shot format, and uses the ability to jump back and forth in time to retroactively change the audience's impression of previous scenes without necessarily going for the gasp or gotcha. Each individual segment works as an individual episode - you could watch most as standalone shorts and the majority wouldn't suffer for it - but the cumulative effect is quite good.

It doesn't entirely come from the behind-the-camera technique, either. John Hawkes is the one who shows up in every episode, and while sometimes his performance may seem a bit light both for the individual segment and when the film as a whole is considered, the fact that Hawkes plays Samson as kind of flip even when he should maybe be more visibly outraged or distraught makes the character a bit more interesting - the smaller cues become more important and the wiseacre private eye persona becomes a bit more of a crutch - while still allowing him to be very funny. A lot of the characters only appear in or two segments, although they still make great impressions - Crystal Reed gives Dorothy a sweetness that doesn't much conflict with the compromised situations where we see her, while Dichen Lachman goes the opposite way with Jill, a blunt, hard exterior that cracks in very believable fashion. Natalie Zea and Vail Bloom don't crack so much as erupt quickly, and their anger is something to see. The non-Hawkes guys seldom have a chance to display quite the range that the women do, although Bret Jacobsen plays off Reed nicely and Robert Forster establishes Gordy as a real creep without a lot of obvious effort.

(On the other hand, the guys don't have to deal with anything equivalent to Hauck's seeming antipathy to women wearing pants. Some pulp sleaze is to be expected, but, come on, fair's fair!)

It will be interesting to see how <I>Too Late</I> plays once it is no longer being booked as something of a novelty and is apparently just one more entry on the list of thrillers (there's been talk of that never happening, but never's a long time). It's good on its own, something a bit more special as when the medium and the story are allowed to be intertwined.

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originally posted: 05/09/16 13:40:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Los Angeles Film Festival For more in the 2015 Los Angeles Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Fantastic Fest For more in the 2015 Fantastic Fest series, click here.

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Directed by
  Dennis Hauck

Written by
  Dennis Hauck

  Dichen Lachman
  Natalie Zea
  Crystal Reed
  John Hawkes
  Rider Strong
  Jeff Fahey

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