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D: Dennis Hauck / 107m

Cast: John Hawkes, Vail Bloom, Joanna Cassidy, Jeff Fahey, Robert Forster, Brett Jacobsen, Dichen Lachman, Dash Mihok, Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Crystal Reed, Rider Strong, Natalie Zea

A modern day noir that sports a grim measure of inevitability, the central character in Too Late is not John Hawkes’ determined private investigator, Samson, but Dorothy (Reed), the stripper he befriends then loses touch with for three years. When she asks to meet him, she’s already in trouble, and by the time he arrives for their rendezvous, she’s already dead. So what’s a newly embittered P.I. to do? Why, go after the people responsible of course. Dorothy’s murder gives Samson a purpose he’s been missing, and he’s as dogged and persistent as gumshoes in the movies usually are, but writer-director Dennis Hauck isn’t interested solely in presenting Samson’s woes, he’s equally (if not more) interested in revealing Dorothy’s hopes and dreams. Too often in noir thrillers, the murder victim serves as a modus operandi for the hero’s actions. Here, Dorothy is more than that: she’s someone the viewer gets to know, and in some detail, and that’s because once she’s dead, she’s not really dead.

How is this possible, you might ask? Well, Hauck has a trick up his sleeve. Once the first scene is over and we’ve met Dorothy and gotten to know a lot about her and she’s wound up dead, Hauck brings her back in the third scene, one where we get to see her meet Samson for the first time. The movie consists of five scenes in total, but they’re assembled in a non-linear fashion. This isn’t as confusing as it might sound – though some viewers may feel aggrieved when they realise that scene five is actually a precursor to scene four – and what it does is to allow Dorothy’s character to be present throughout the whole movie, and to leave an indelible impression. That way, Samson’s determination to track down and punish the people responsible for her death becomes understandable in a way that doesn’t often occur in noir thrillers. And Hauck is clever enough through his screenplay to make Samson’s “mission” a personal one that really comes across as personal, instead of something perfunctory in order to get the movie started. There is an air of personal redemption going on with Samson, and his persistence hints at deeper feelings for Dorothy than he might admit.

Each scene has been shot in one single, continuous twenty-two minute take, so there’s a lot of Steadicam work, plus a lot of swinging the camera from one character to another, which can be really distracting (there’s also an impressive zoom in the first scene that is technically superb for the distance it covers). On occasion the need to maintain the integrity of the take makes for some uncomfortable transitions, but overall Hauck and DoP Bill Fernandez have done an impressive job of immersing the viewer in what’s happening, and populating the frame with details that support the emotion of each scene as it unfolds. The performances are very good indeed, with Hawkes, Lachman and Reed all at the top of their game, while the likes of Bloom – re-enacting Julianne Moore’s famous nude scene from Short Cuts (1993) – Zea and Jacobsen all make an impact in minor roles. This being a modern noir thriller, there’s plenty of violence, but it’s always in service to the demands of the narrative, rather than the other way round. As a tale of flawed human beings trying their best to get by in the world with what little they have that’s theirs, Too Late is an intriguing, thought-provoking revenge drama that has no intention of telling its heartfelt story in any other way than with honesty, sincerity and an unfailing commitment to its characters.

Rating: 8/10 – the commitment to continuous twenty-two minute scenes does lead to some pacing issues, and some moments do feel like filler (e.g. the point where Samson picks up a guitar and performs an admittedly lovely song), but Too Late is far too good everywhere else; a meditative, earnest thriller that impresses every time it surprises, this also serves as an example of how character can – and always should – drive the narrative of a movie forward, and how it should be allowed to maintain that ambition right to the very end.