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rochefort [Celluloid 10.01.15] thriller mystery noir

In “Too Late”, John Hawkes plays Sampson, a low-level private eye hired to find a missing girl in modern-day Los Angeles. The girl, Dorothy (Crystal Reed), has gotten on the bad side of a mobster named Gordy Lyons (Robert Forster), who owns multiple strip clubs throughout L.A., including the one where Dorothy worked before all the trouble started. In his search, Sampson crosses paths with a number of shady Angelinos, including two ecstasy dealers (Dash Mihok and Rider Strong), stripper-with-a-mean-streak Jill (Dichen Lachman), and the perpetually chipper Skippy Fontaine (Brett Jacobsen). All of which sound like fairly recognizable tropes of your typical pulp noir, right? Well, they are, but this time around, the execution’s the thing.

“Too Late” consists of only five scenes, each shot in a single, continuous take. The extended or unbroken take has been one of the more glamorous filmmaking techniques (or gimmicks, depending on whatever allowances you’re willing to make) since Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope”, and is definitely one of the showier methods a filmmaker can attempt in order to create some water cooler buzz, especially among geeks and film buffs. When it works (“Children of Men”, the opening of “Goodfellas”, that hallway scene in “Daredevil”), it really works, and when it fails the movie quickly takes on an amateurish pall, the damage done. In this, the debut feature from director Dennis Hauck, the result is mostly successful because of what’s going on in front of the camera, and not necessarily how the camera gets to it. The swish pans, tracking sequences and merry-go-round returns are mostly very well done. But when you commit to this level of flash, you raise the bar a great deal higher.

One way to reach that bar is to cast a dynamite leading man, and John Hawkes is well up to the challenge. It’s extremely gratifying to see Hawkes’ career evolve from character actor and bit player (remember him as the store clerk in “From Dusk Till Dawn”?) to leading man. He may not be the most obvious stock choice to play a modern noir gumshoe, but so what; his etched face and light sandpaper voice turn Sampson into one of the most distinctive loser detectives in a long time. It’s interesting to note that almost every member of the cast does their best work when sharing the screen with him, and of all of them Hawkes seems most comfortable with the almost certainly intense demands of such long takes. The rest of the cast is mostly game, but a couple of rough spots do crop up, particularly with Jacobsen’s Skippy Fontaine, whose rhythms never really gel.

And it’s the rhythm problem that makes this a somewhat bittersweet review. I liked the film a lot, no doubt about it; the performances are mostly great and the story goes to some refreshingly unexpected places. But I couldn’t help but come away with the feeling that it still falls short of what was intended, which comes back to the pressure filmmakers put on themselves when they go for full-on virtuoso. We want to forget the technique and get lost in the carousel of movement with a film like this and, in addition to the tiny amount of lackluster performances, “Too Late” sports a handful of repetitive pans and jiggles that jolt us out and remind us we’re watching a mechanical thing. Very good isn’t good enough when each scene is a fifth of your movie; anything short of perfect will spoil the overall effect. So I guess what I’m saying is this is an almost perfect film, and hopefully that’s not so bittersweet after all.

Recommended Release: Inherent Vice

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