“Too Late” is structured around a striking gimmick: Its Los Angeles-set neo-noir tale is told in five non-chronologically ordered segments, each consisting of one continuous shot running a single Techniscope-format 35mm reel (approximately 22 minutes) in length. The sense that one is watching an elaborate formal stunt is underlined by the studiedly flamboyant dialogue and artificial situations in writer-director Dennis Hauck’s first feature, a supremely self-conscious genre exercise in which character and emotional depth don’t seem to be on the very meta menu. Rolling out theatrically in 35mm-only exhibition (which expands after single-screen March 18 and April 1 openings in Los Angeles and New York, respectively) the pic will get variable critical support. Such stylistic bravado will surely accrue some cultish admiration there and in home-format release.
The opening sequence finds Dorothy (Crystal Reed) waiting on Radio Hill for a friend, private eye Mel Sampson (John Hawkes), who’s surprised but excited to hear from this fleeting onetime paramour for the first time in years. Being an attractive young woman on her own, she attracts attention from the few men about: first two flirty, friendly if not-too-bright drug dealers, Matthew (Rider Strong) and Jesse (Dash Mihok); then a handsome park ranger, Fontaine (Brett Jacobsen). Fontaine is not what he appears to be, however, and things take a dark turn before Mel finally arrives … too late.
The next section finds Hawkes posing as a stranded motorist to gain access to an upscale manse where mobster Gordy (Robert Forster) and flunky Roger (Jeff Fahey) are lounging with their respective young trophy wives, weepy Janet (Vail Bloom) and bitchy Veronica (Sydney Tamiia Poitier). The interloper disrupts this discordant domestic scene to violently extract information about the demise of Dorothy, a former employee at one of Gordy’s strip clubs. The ensuing panel winds back the clock to portray Mel’s original meeting with her, where their initial interaction as dancer and potential client drifts into an after-work date at a nearby watering hole where Sally Jaye sings a song with her band, then Hawkes performs a (rather incongruously twee) song of his own.
The fourth section jumps forward again to a hotel where downstairs, the hapless, panicked Matthew and Jesse have convinced themselves (wrongly) that they caused Dorothy’s death. Meanwhile, upstairs, her jaded mother (Natalie Zea) and concerned grandmother (Joanna Cassidy), as yet unaware of Dorothy’s fate, are in town to investigate her disappearance. For that purpose they’ve hired a P.I. who turns out to be Mel. He discloses a “shocking” revelation to Zea in the pic’s most egregious, unconvincing attempt to plumb genuine emotion amid an otherwise entirely artificial collection of genre tropes. Finally, he hits road’s end at a drive-in theater/boxing venue run by another ex-stripper paramour, the hard-boiled Jill (Dichen Lachman).
Each segment is a small wonder of complex actor blocking and camera movement, whether evoking an Altmanesque ’70s feel (as in the zoom-lens-heavy initial section) or other cinematic antecedents. But that’s only the most conspicuous and ingenious way in which “Too Late” calls attention to its artifice. Other showoff distractions include the incessantly verbose, arch, fanboy-reference-stuffed dialogue; the odd fourth-wall-breaking; a long stretch in which Bloom must convey pathos while pointlessly bottomless; glimpsed clips at the drive-in from the original “Carnival of Souls”; the expected, ever-so-eclectic mixtape soundtrack; and arbitrary character behaviors, such as a recurrent tendency for people who’ve just met to trade “I’ve never told anyone this before”-style intimacies.
All this might work well enough if “Too Late” were entirely a neo-noir abstract with zero pretensions toward psychological or narrative credibility. But sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t — often Hauck simply seems to be going for whatever’s most attention-gettingly incongruous, whether it’s sensational genre cliche or abrupt heart-on-sleeve sincerity. The result has the same arresting contrarianism of something like “Only God Forgives,” offering a hypnotically stylized surface compromised by the apparent unawareness that there’s no real content beneath. (It’s particularly irksome that the gender dynamics seem more oblivious than a deliberate statement; nearly all the females here are scantily clad playthings a fraction of the average male’s age.)
As a spiritually “lost” man searching for a more literally lost woman, Hawkes has just the offhand gravitas required for a noir hero. Yet in a movie where character backstory and plot coherence hardly figure, any emotional realism the actor provides is wholly his invention. Supporting turns are variably entertaining (most of the men) or queasily exploitative (the women, natch), but all hemmed in by archetypal conceptions and jawbreaker verbiage.
Apparently shot (due to stop/start funding woes) over two years, with some significant changes in off-screen personnel between sections as a result, “Too Late” wears its showy textural diversity with pride. Tech/design contributions are nothing if not resourceful, the standout of course being Bill Fernandez’s virtuoso lensing. Still, there is something inherently problematic — as well as fascinating — about a movie whose individual parts might so easily be admiringly analyzed in a classroom setting for their technical wizardry, while by contrast it’s so hard to take away any conventional narrative or emotional rewards from the Rube Goldbergian whole.