An LA noir shot in five takes is only as good as John Hawkes makes it.
Too Late (LAFF Review)
It’s rare I start a movie immediately believing I hate it, end the film feeling like maybe I’d misjudged, and two days later feel even more convinced it’s an interesting if not groundbreaking film. Filmed on 35mm and left in its grittiest state—the colors have a relatively untreated feel, like a ’70s Dirty Harry film—Too Late is an L.A. noir shot in five continuous take scenes. With old-fashioned noir lines spouted from the mouths of modern LA characters, the film feels exceptionally off in its attempts to homage older films, but the building mystery and the always engaging John Hawkes, elevate the film much further than it possibly deserves.
Told out of order, the film opens on Dorothy (Crystal Reed), who looks like more of a Little Red Riding Hood in her red sweatshirt, and who quickly becomes the prey of several men as she hangs out in the hills of Elysian Park overlooking downtown L.A. When she has trouble making a call from her dated flip phone, she asks two passing drug dealers (Ryder Strong and Dash Mihok) for the use of their phone. The men, who had just previously been discussing movie tropes and discussing how much easier things would be if at the climax of a film all could be revealed by one character simply handing another character a copy of the film to catch them up—Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead being their example of a time this would have come in handy—lend Dorothy their phone. She calls John Hawkes’ Sampson, a private detective, who seems to have an affection for the girl despite the two having only spent one night together a year previous. The camera sloppily zooms in over to Chinatown from the hilltop to focus on Sampson as he takes the call.
Sampson jumps in his Thunderbird to come get the distraught Dorothy, Jesse and Matthew the drug dealers leave her with some ecstasy, and soon enough Dorothy finds herself chatting with a slimy park ranger who uses such unbelievably charming and flirtatious language any woman watching would have their creeper-radar at DEFCON 1. That Dorothy, a supposedly somewhat street-wise stripper, continues to chat with him becomes increasingly unbelievable. And its only the first instance of almost every female in the film being given highly implausible and slightly exploitive material to work with.
The mystery unfolds at the end of this scene and we jump ahead to the end of the story, then back to before the beginning, then back to the middle, then over to what would be the penultimate scene if anything went chronologically. It’s a good pace, though it takes some catching up to understand. The stakes often don’t feel quite high enough, though there is a satisfying sort of twist at the end. Mostly the film grows more intriguing the more we get to see of Sampson. Hawkes is the only one in the film able to pull off the constant spout of silly speech. Every scene sees him interacting with a different female—in fact, every one of the five scenes is anchored on a male-female dynamic—and he seems to add respect to the table which makes all the difference in their interactions. The film’s second scene involves a doting and cooped up housewife, Janet, wallowing in the truth of her husband’s disaffection and infidelity, played superbly by Vail Bloom. That Bloom was directed to play this entire scene bottomless was at first humorous, and then simply suspiciously distasteful. Another scene follows Sampson’s ex-lover (Dichen Lachman) as she works both a boxing match and a drive-in theater in nothing but a bikini and heels, the camera staying just far enough away to allow her half-naked bottom to maintain focus.
While clearly first time director Dennis Hauck has a real love for the old-timey-ness possibility of film—in addition to being shot on 35mm the scene at the drive-in focuses on Sampson’s ex Jill’s ability to change a film reel—he hasn’t quite grasped the way to incorporate this passion into a film with modern flourishes. His writing reflects a childish amusement at his own clever wordplay, but seems to forget that the best noir had as much to do with silence as with dialogue.
This film proves several things: John Hawkes can elevate a film far beyond where it would be without him, females are usually the more intriguing elements of a noir so don’t abuse them, and witty dialogue does not an intelligent film make. For a first-time film, Hauck proves he has ambition aplenty, and if honed even more he is certainly someone to keep an eye on. Too Late is engaging and at times amusing in spite of itself, its whole being somewhat better than its parts. But there’s no denying why this film works in any small way, and his name is John Hawkes.