“It’s watching Pulp Fiction for the first time.” This was the reply when I asked a friend as to whether or not to see writer/director Dennis Hauck‘s debut feature, Too Late. That’s some heavy praise (excessively so perhaps) to place on any picture, let alone on one from a first-time feature filmmaker, but obviously I wasn’t going to turn down the opportunity to see Pulp Fiction for the first time a second time.
If one has never seen Pulp Fiction, nor any attempts at mimicry that came on its heels, this picture would be the absolute closest to replicating the impact of that experience – from the performances, to the structure and craft, to the dialogue and discovering within it the entertainment value in listening to people speak with pizzazz.
John Hawkes (in a performance I will say with complete lack of hyperbole could be the best of its kind since the days of Mitchum and Bogie) plays Sampson, a private detective in Los Angeles. Out of the blue, Sampson receives a call from Dorothy (Crystal Reed) a young stripper he’d known for only one night three years ago. Despite their minimal time together, Sampson feels compelled to help her out given the fact it had been so long, and yet she felt the need to ring him, of all people, for help.
Dorothy calls Sampson from a nearby hilltop after encountering a pair of drug-dealers (Rider Strong and Dash Mihok) who give her a sampling of ecstasy — free of charge to a beautiful lady — before the two of them leave to meet up with a client. From the distant hilltop the camera zooms in on an apartment (seems a good mile away) where Sampson is there to let Dorothy know he’ll meet her where she currently is. The two hang up, and Dorothy is greeted by another man hanging around nearby. He’s a park ranger, and the two of them spark up some harmless back-and-forth banter to pass the time. It starts to become evident the man isn’t what he appears to be – and as Sampson pulls up he recognizes the dead body of the girl he spoke to for one night three years ago. And, this is all done in one seamless take.
The rest of the film is told in the same fashion in regards to presentation. It’s comprised of long, single-shot moments of significance to the opening scene, and each are presented out of sequence. Following that first act we head to the extravagant home of Gordy and Janet Lyons (Robert Forster and a believably distressed and depressed Vail Bloom) playing host to friends Roger and Veronica (Jeff Fahey and Sydney Tamiia Poitier). Given that three of those four people have a history as Tarantino actors it certainly adds to the feeling of being Fiction-esque. It’s clear we’re walking into a dynamite moment in the house, and Hawkes shows up with the match.
From there the stories involve the likes of visiting the night that that Dorothy and Sampson met, an introduction to Jill (a sublime Dichen Lachman) as a fellow stripper at Dorothy’s nightclub, and finally culminating in a meeting with Dorothy’s family. It’s in the bookends that the movie falls as close to flat is it ever gets – and even then it’s never less than engaging. The opening sequence is dominated by mostly younger actors and the rhythm of the dialogue feels a little out of their comfort zone. They just don’t seem in sync with it, especially as you start to hear how it should sound in the subsequent segments. The opening sounds like Tarantino imitation, whereas the later segments occasionally reach the heights of Out of the Past‘s style and emotion when given to Hawkes and Lachman.
The more I experience movies like this (highly rhythmic dialogue) the more I get the sense that the greater role of a lead is that they must not only be on their own game, but must also be there to set the pace for everyone else – and in Too Late, Hawkes is Magic Johnson. Even when he’s giving an obviously contrived third-person monologue about himself he’s winning with maturity and confidence. If not for Hawkes this picture might very well have failed to hold together. The single-shot takes are attractive without being showy, the dialogue is snazzy without being too self-gratifying, and the performances (on the whole) are balanced in projecting assuredness and regret. It’s going to be difficult to avoid comparisons to Pulp Fiction because of the structural choice of out-of-sequence storytelling and snappy-talking, and while they’re undeniably apt this picture reminded me more of the great Walsh and Tourneur private dick films of the past as told by Robert Altman. In fact, this may be the best straightforward California-noir since Altman’s The Player – and that is a statement I’m more than comfortable standing by.
The Upside: Outstanding performances from John Hawkes and Dichen Lachman; great script with memorable and quotable dialogue; excellent camerawork and choreography; a soundtrack I should have mentioned more about, because it also invokes comparison to QT
The Downside: An opening act that doesn’t do a great job setting up how much better the rest of the film will be; the dialogue doesn’t always work in relation to who is delivering it
Editor’s note: Our review of Too Late originally ran during Fantastic Fest 2015, but we’re re-running it now as the film opens in limited theatrical release.
Related Topics: Fantastic Fest