by Jason Suzuki
With a majority of theaters digital only and lacking in film projection capabilities, along with the rise of productions big and small shooting digital with the likes of RED and Alexa, the filming and exhibition of a movie on film has become a marketing tool. Big names like Nolan and Tarantino have given viewers early access screening incentives, just as long as those screenings are on film. It's a nice gesture but not all that impressive when their budgets can support the choice to shoot on film. Additionally they have a pedigree of surefire profit meaning the studios can handle striking up all those prints; not to mention the fact that movies shot on film were most likely still edited digitally anyway. It’s even more ridiculous when you consider that The Hateful Eight had a Cinerama logo without actually being shot on the format. Too Late on the other hand is a film deserving of its 35mm fetishism as it makes stylistic and narrative choices based on it while never forgetting of the hard-boiled, regretful mood it is creating beyond the help of the grain.
John Hawkes, in what will most likely become his quintessential performance in the years to come, surpassing The Sessions (sort of like how Elliot Gould is more intrinsically linked with The Long Goodbye rather than MASH despite its popularity), plays Sampson, a private eye looking for a missing woman, a stripper named Dorothy. Sampson is too late to save the young woman, finding her murdered just minutes after having spoken to her on the phone (one of many references to the title). The moments before, during, and after her death are done in a bravado long take, expertly executed and incorporating extended zooms and split screen, the camera dancing around a good portion of the cast of characters that we’ll come back to later in the film.
It’s easy to think that the energy of the opening sequence won’t be maintained throughout the film. Starting out of the gate with a long take has been seen elsewhere as a way to easily hook the audience. Too Late however is broken up into five acts, each the length of a reel of film, shot in continuous takes that are equally long. The opening act is just an introduction to the bold nature of the film, which remains in the four subsequent reels. Every now and then there will be an awkward pause or line read when an actor almost forgot their next line, it saves the movie from being too clean and proper and more evocative of the freewheeling, low-budget nature of the era it wants to emulate. There’s an authenticity to the film, director Hauck wanted each sequence to be done in one go, all in camera. There is no seamless joining of shots which is why the long take has become so popular. The non-linear narrative shakes off some of the played out post-Tarantino stigma when considering that maybe the film is recreating when a projectionist has the order of his reels jumbled up.
The way we are divulged information includes the audience on this idea of being late. When we know motivations or outcomes it doesn't matter if the next reel takes place before or after the previous one, we can't go back and analyze what has happened. It's a way to make the world feel poetically pre-destined for the most regret. It's a testament to the direction that the physicality of the celluloid is felt from its structure. From the beginning, the film is not very concerned with the mystery of who killed the girl and why but rather exploring a world occupied by characters filled with regret, a sense of being too late. It's not annoying when the title of the film is spoken, as it usually is in most cases, because it already hangs over every moment and the characters are contemplative enough to realize it. The noir coating is aligned with the idea that everyone has a role to fit into, the character tropes are the existences already carved out.
To divulge any more would ruin the film's joy of discovery. Even knowing the structure of the film won't spoil the surprise of its confidence. What’s not surprising is that this is a debut, the stage of an artist’s career where anything seems possible. There is a single moment late in the film that surpasses its overall boldness. It is imaginative and serves as a reminder that new, and exciting things can still happen in a movie. A tender moment between Sampson and Dorothy serves as the centerpiece of the film, but this other moment could be taken as the film's true core. A simple means of expressing dreams not attained and impossible futures. All accomplished pure and in camera, like the rest of the film.
Jason Suzuki is co-editor to Cinema Adrift.