Jean-Luc Godard famously said all you need to make a movie is a gun and a girl. The combination offers endless possibilities in storytelling. Murder. Revenge. Greed. The girl can be a catalyst for action, as can the gun. Having read my fair share of Chandler, Hammett and Spillane, and contemporaries like George Pelecanos and Lee Child, the latter of which spills over more into thriller territory than straight-up hard boiled, I can unequivocally say that Too Late features one of the most convincing and true-to-spirit private dicks, cinema or otherwise.
John Hawkes is Sampson, trying to solve the murder of the woman he had intended to help but was too late to take action. Told in non-linear fashion and divided into five acts, the story takes the original approach of having each scene be conducted as one continuous long take, and with each take being approximately twenty minutes in length.
I have much adoration for the art of the long take and doing more with less, especially when it comes to editing. A filmmaker like Michael Bay would be an inconsolable child if he didn’t have the freedom to have an edit take place every ten frames. Then again, Bay wouldn’t touch a simple detective yarn unless he could have elaborate shootouts or explosions happening at some point.
Long, singular shots can add to a story or it can backfire and be detrimental to the narrative, where it becomes more about the technique and less about being a support to the central character or action. For his feature film debut, writer-director Dennis Hauck has the technique not be a distraction. Though, it does offer limitations when trying to have a moment between characters that are separated by miles of hilly terrain. To get around these limitations, Hauck cheats a little by incorporating the classic staple of phone conversations: the split screen.
The opening shots of Touch of Evil and The Player. The Copa sequence in Goodfellas. The Dunkirk scene in Atonement. Each uses a long shot to a benefit in establishing location. Too Late should and will be added to that discussion with its scenes that occur in the hills overlooking Los Angeles, at a strip club and an old-fashioned drive-in that doubles as an outdoor boxing venue on Sundays. The long takes and getting engrossed in each scene allows for tension with whip pans between characters when things go from bad to worse.
While it may seem like I’m heaping too much praise for the film’s technical merits (seriously, though, Hauck, his cinematographer Bill Fernandez, the Key Grip, Best Boy, you name it deserve major props for what they have accomplished), sorry I just can’t help it. Too Late is too awesome.
“There is no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself.” – Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye
Too Late subverts the everyday missing person’s case to be an introspective journey about Sampson looking to make amends for past mistakes. Hawkes is the archetypal everyman detective. He’s not rich or particularly good looking. He smokes but doesn’t drink. He carries a revolver but is more likely to take a beating than inflict punishment. His mystery machine is a 1980 Pontiac Firebird. Jim Rockford would be pleased.
It’s obvious from the film’s opening that Hauck has been influenced by a number of directors and film noir style. In Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction hitmen Jules and Vincent wax philosophically about what constitutes a dirty animal and failed TV shows; Hauck gives us two low-rent drug dealers talking of best intentions and referencing Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead. The conversations may seem unremarkable and unimportant – the equivalent to having actors smoke in scenes to give them something to do – yet the spigot Huack opens allows for memorable exchanges between Hawkes and strippers looking to give him a lap dance when all he wants to do is watch from afar, so he doesn’t have to tip (Mr. Pink would concur.). The dialogue flows from a solid ensemble of guys and gals from movies and TV shows you may remember from the 1990s. The Lawnmower Man. Boy Meets World. And even Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead. (This fact I pointed out to Hauck after its Texas premiere, to which we both acknowledged as being a happy accident.)
Too Late feels like a successor to Robert Altman’s take on the Raymond Chandler classic The Long Goodbye. Most of that is John Hawkes but also Dennis Hauck’s decision to shoot the film on 35mm. The color palate during the day and night sequences and settings used gives it a ’70s tinge, even though the timeframe is around the mid-to-late 2000s with its inclusion of flip-open cellphones.
Hauck’s debut hits so many notes right that there’s little complaint to be found. My love for detective and hard-boiled fiction, with its tough guys and loose women, and film noir may have something to do with that. Nevertheless, Too Late is more than a gem waiting to be discovered. This is the type of film you need to push on to others to see as if you were selling drugs on The Wire.
Director: Dennis Hauck
Writer(s): Dennis Hauck
Notable Cast: John Hawkes, Robert Forster, Jeff Fahey, Joanna Cassidy, Crystal Reed, Dichen Lachman, Natalie Zea, Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Dash Mihok and Rider Strong