Kierkegaard, noted Existentialist and proto-Absurdist, once opined that life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards. As a cinematic exploration of the tragic and comedic implications of that, there is Dennis Hauck’s wistful neo-Noir, TOO LATE, a film that employs a strategic insouciance as it nimbly plays with the time/space continuum and with our heads.
The concept of “now” is a relative construct as Los Angeles P.I. Mel Samson (John Hawkes) sets out to solve and then avenge the murder of Dorothy (Crystal Reed), the winsome stripper whose call for help he answered, as the title says, too late. Scruffy yet soulful, Samson goes high and low, literally and metaphorically, searching for answers in mansions and dives, where corruption and nobility co-mingle reacting to impulsive moves that are pinging across time and space.
Shot in a series of five stunning, yet never gimmicky, 20-minute takes, Hauck plunges us into the action as more than mere observer. We are living the moment with the characters in a visceral fashion that not even 3D can render with such verisimilitude. Yet, for all of what we do and don’t know, what Samson discovers, and what the motely band of supporting players who are, in true Noir fashion, never exactly what they seem to be, believe, these five (not easy) pieces of a much larger puzzle have, when taken as a whole, a truth that mere chronological narrative could never convey. Chance encounters in a hillside park set actions in motion that we can’t foresee, and the same is true of a deliberate visit to a hillside palazzo, where the difference between vice and habit is parsed, and unconventional attire is noted but not necessarily mentioned.
Hauck has taken the tropes of the noir genre and distilled their dark sensibility into a post-millennial angst, going where they couldn’t in those prim post-war years, but hinted at. Femmes fatale and ingénues are disconcertingly similar here. Their hearts, never of gold, but hot-blooded and surprisingly vulnerable, trip up Samson, who walks a fine line between irony and heartbreak as he pursues a personal code of honor in a world that offers little enough of that commodity.
This is Hawkes most profound performance from a man who has delivered many of same. Menacing in MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE as a charismatic cult leader, finding humor and strength as a paraplegic in search of his first sexual encounter in THE SESSIONS, here he is an avenging Buddha of compassion and clarity. There is a wistful melancholy to the twinkle in his eye, and a composure that never falters in even the most putatively uncomfortable of situations, even as we can see him falling apart inside. He also sings a mean ballad when in an after-hours club where he dances a sweet two-step with Dorothy, and injects the blackest of comedy in moments of most dire suspense. He maintains perfect equanimity as a half-dressed woman scorned (Vail Bloom delivering a primal performance) in a dangerously fragile state waves a gun in emotional extremis as her mascara runs and her world collapses. He is the rock in the whirlwind, unfazed and beyond worry.
TOO LATE takes us to a world at once familiar and surreal. It is a breathtakingly assured piece of storytelling done with visual poetry and haunting emotional resonance.