[Review] ‘Too Late’ is an ambitious film noir

The long David Lynch-like opening sequence is memorable: Beautiful young Dorothy awaits the arrival of old flame Mel — a private detective — in a Radio Hill park high above Los Angeles. Two drug dealers, followed by a handsome park ranger, get there first. By the time Mel shows up, it’s — you guessed it — “Too Late.”

Even more memorable, perhaps, is the second sequence, in which trophy wife Janet (Vail Bloom) wanders around naked below the waist, up to and during the murder of her mobster husband, who used to employ Dorothy at one of his sleazy strip clubs.

If you stand on the cutting edge, be careful: It can slice your feet off.

Director-writer Dennis Hauck’s feature film debut plumbs the tangled depths between private eye Mel (John Hawkes) and missing Dorothy (Crystal Reed), the stripper with the proverbial heart of gold he’s hired to track down. It’s a familiar setup. But Mr. Hauck tears it apart, then stitches it back together into a tapestry of eccentric SoCal lost souls, skipping most of the PI detective stuff and focusing instead on the characters’ emotional lives, the backstory and the aftermath — NOT in that order.

This ambitious contemporary film noir unfolds across five nonsequential acts, filmed in the old 35 mm Techniscope format, which yields 22 minutes of footage per roll, compared with the 11-minute max of most subsequent 35 mm formats. With its self-conscious lighting, long zooms and tight focus, Bill Fernandez’ old-fashioned photography superbly captures both the seedy and faux-glamorous vistas of LA.

Oscar-nominated for “Winter’s Bone” (2010), Mr. Hawkes is a self-effacing, less-is-more kind of actor. Here, as the grizzled gumshoe, he resembles a down-and-out Sean Penn. Dichen Lachman as Jill, a hard-boiled Asian vamp, is a little too inscrutable, while Sydney Tamiia Poitier — yes, the daughter of Sidney! — has a nice turn in the opening.

Mr. Hauck strives to channel Quentin Tarantino — a “Pulp Fiction”-style take on the noir genre — but his script’s long-winded, grandiloquent dialogue, packed with film references, grows tedious. Is a stripper’s monologue on Bugs Bunny really necessary?

“I thought it was more interesting to ostensibly solve the case right off the bat and then delve deeper into who these characters are and how they know each other,” the director has said. “The film’s structure was conceived before I even knew what it would be about. I told myself it could be about anything, as long as it takes place in five 20-minute scenes.”

Content follows form, in other words, rather than the usual other way around.

Interesting, in theory.

Dubious, in practice.

“I could be wrong,” he adds, “but I think the shots in ‘Too Late’ are the longest continuous shots filmed on 35 mm in cinema history.”

He is, in fact, wrong. There are many instances of longer takes dating back to the silent era, up through the Andy Warhol films. Anyway, it’s not really about the length of the takes. It’s about the challenge of editing them.

Some nice music adorns “Too Late” — notably, Mr. Hawkes’ performance of “Down with Mary,” and Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”

But, oy veh, the self-indulgence of this project — whose climactic finale involves a drive-in theater that doubles as a boxing venue, run by scantily clad Jill.

Director Hauck says he has another project in mind, described as “Nathanael West meets Terry Gilliam for a weird movie about a guy with no tongue.”

Gotta admire the man’s imagination. Gotta wish him better luck next time with the coherent execution.

(Opens Friday at the Pittsburgh Film Makers’ Melwood screening room in Oakland.)


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