Synopsis: Explores the tangled relationship between a troubled private investigator and the missing woman he’s hired to help find. (Source)
As far as debuts go, writer/director Dennis Hauck could’ve made a mark with much less, but then we wouldn’t have Too Late, a pulpy Los Angeles neo-noir that evokes the tone and rhythm of Tarantino yet has a voice of its own. Shot completely on 35mm film and told in a series of five, non-linear twenty minute takes, the film is a stunning mix of technical achievement and eccentric, colorful characters. Hauck takes a well worn damsel-in-distress plot, but only uses it as a starting point to spin off into a poignant character study about never knowing what you’ve got until it’s… too late. Anchoring the entire thing is an incredible performance from John Hawkes, whose broken down antihero is irresistible to watch. Even if you’ve seen dozens of whodunits, Too Late is a breath of fresh air that’s bound to find a long life from casual viewers to diehard genre enthusiasts.
Private investigator Mel Sampson (John Hawkes) is brought into the dark underbelly of Los Angeles when he’s hired to find a missing girl (Crystal Reed) mysteriously tied to his past. Navigating a world of drug dealers, strippers and thugs, Sampson constantly finds himself one step away from being able to see the big picture. A love letter to classic crime novels and a critique of Los Angeles’ haunted inhabitants, Sampson’s missing persons case turns into an introspective quest to find himself and where he went wrong.
The most instantly recognizable thing about the story is its structure and rhythm. Shattering the narrative into a self-described mangled web of intrigue, Hauck is right to not focus on physical or mortal stakes directly, but emotional ones, breaking the film up into five moments of Sampson’s life which slowly mount tension and never end the way we’d expect. Breathlessly executed, the presentation never feels showy, but instead allows the film to immerse us into its eclectic world and the pivotal revelations that result in an emotionally candid, satisfying progression. Though non-linear stories aren’t anything new, Hauck’s context helps him explore a character who is always poignantly missing the moment. It’s the type of film that begs for multiple viewings thanks to its jigsaw of a plot, yet remains accessible and fun on a first pass.
To compliment the film’s narrative and technical brio, Hauck’s assembled a group of incredible performers who play excellent against teach other and keep things unpredictable. John Hawkes’ Sampson carries the entire thing with ease, rendering an weathered everyman who feels like he’s seen a lot and has been slowly broken down over the years. Hawkes’ hasn’t quite gotten to show a side like this before, and he delivers his archetypal antihero with a texture that’s haunting. Also notable are the film’s cast of female characters. I could’ve done with the way that most of them were presented (which is constant, various stages of undress that aren’t always completely justified) but that’s another argument, and there’s no denying their complex roles. In many ways the story is about them and the ways they affect the men around them, yet are left to fend for themselves. They each take matters into their own hands and aren’t afraid to stare into uncertainty or mortal danger no matter how tragic the results. From Crystal Reed’s Dorothy, who sets the plot into motion, Vail Bloom’s volatile yet vulnerable Janet, to Dichen Lachman’s fierce but loyal Jill, they each steal the spotlight and leave a presence that lingers even when they’re not there. Genre favorites Jeff Fahey and Robert Forster even make an appearance as a few unsavory types, solidifying the ensemble as an eclectic cast of misfits that, coupled with Hauck’s verbose dialogue are never boring.
By unexpectedly solving the film’s surface mystery in the first few minutes, Hauck frees the film from standard genre expectations and takes us along for a decidedly unique ride. Ultimately, we get an energetic, intimate character portrait that builds to a final revelation packing an undeniable gut punch of emotion. Too Late works on multiple levels; it’s a beautifully layered experience that trades gunfights for a keen study of human nature, throwing in a few self-effacing jabs in the process, a musical number and when you least expect, hope.