Too Late: Hopelessly Tangled, by David Bax
So it’s the mid-2010s now, which means we’ve reached the point where we’re nostalgic for the postmodernist crime films of the Quentin Tarantino 90s, which were themselves referential of the neo-noir 70s of Roman Polanski and Peter Yates. For proof that we’ve arrived in this cultural moment, look no further than Dennis Hauck’s Too Late. Hauck’s self-ordained “picture” may constantly threaten to trip over its own cleverness but its confident visual rhythm and eye for characters who are as wounded as they are idiosyncratic keep it upright.
Hauck’s story is both simple – a private detective seeks the killers of a young woman he met just once but for whom he has a soft spot – and disorientingly busy. In addition to the gumshoe (John Hawkes) and the dame (Crystal Reed), it involves two small-time drug dealers (Rider Strong and Dash Mihok), a pyscho posing as a park ranger (Brett Jacobsen), a shady strip club owner (Robert Forster), his partner (Jeff Fahey), their disaffected wives (Vail Bloom and Sydney Tamiia Poitier), a stripper (the always great Dichen Lachman), and a rich white trash mother and daughter (Joanna Cassidy and Natalie Zea).
Further complicating matters, while also enlivening them, is the structure. Too Late‘s five acts are told using six unbroken takes (plus a few inserts at the very end). Only the final act contains a cut and it only covers the length of an elevator ride down to a hotel lobby. Hauck’s other embellishments include an ingenious use of split screen that garnered an audible reaction in the theater and some brief but well-placed slow-motion during a scene at a drive-in movie. And finally, in the sternest nod to Tarantino, these chapters are ordered nonlinearly.
This could all be too much to bear, yet Hauck’s assured visual style rises above the clichés. His camera glides constantly, not with reckless abandon or impatience but to create the flow that would be up to the editing in a film with more than a handful of edits. It certainly helps that cinematographer Bill Fernandez never fails to find a striking frame no matter how much the Steadicam moves. And the naturalistic color palette is a welcome respite from the overly color-timed products of today. If you are truly nostalgic for 90s independent American movies, Too Late certainly looks like one.
Hauck’s dialogue is stylized within an inch of its life. Despite references to The Wire and Iron Man, it’s self-consciously retro. The Brick-esque noir patois is sometimes too much (“You were an empty vessel but whatever I was fillin’ you up with, it wasn’t knowledge”) and Hauck borrows the bad parts of the hyperverbal 90s as well as the good, right down to the unnecessary casual racism. Yet, missteps like these aside, the benefit of the heightened language is that it creates a bubble that allows us to not just forgive coincidences (like the detective’s number being the only one in the address book of a woman he met only one time) and unlikelihoods (did I mention the drive-in movie?) but to see such things as the fabric of the story we’re being told. On the surface, it’s a violent and jaded neo-noir but at heart it’s a fairytale.
Too Late’s softhearted centerpiece is its literal center piece, the third of the five acts. Setting aside the hardboiled irony for twenty minutes, Hauck approaches in this section something like the gin-soaked romanticism of The Fabulous Baker Boys. This chronologically earliest segment details the night the gumshoe met the dame. Noir films have always dealt with characters on the fringe, those who skate just under the norm, living emotionally lean lives so as never to get too attached. The truth, however, is that these rough-edged cynics are actually the most sensitive of all. That’s why when they do fall, they fall so hard. The central section of Too Late details with heartbreaking empathy the one time that these two – so cautious they spend most of their lives waiting for a moment they’ve already missed – looked up and found themselves in the middle of it. Everything else, before and after, revolves around this one night.