Former Austinite John Hawkes (“Winter’s Bone,” “Martha Marcy May Marlene”) rules every frame of his performance as a tough private investigator with a heart of gold named Samspon in “Too Late.” And I do mean every frame, as the debut feature from Dennis Hauck was shot on film and projected on 35mm during Fantastic Fest. It was only a few years ago when this wouldn’t have been uncommon, but now it’s a true rarity.
In one of the film’s first scenes, Dorothy (Crystal Reed, MTV’s “Teen Wolf”) is on walking on Radio Hill and borrows a stranger’s phone to make a call to Sampson. As downtown Los Angeles looms large in the background, the camera tracks beyond her, into the city and onto a balcony where the call is answered. This happens in a very long, carefully orchestrated take that eventually goes to split screen to get us just a little bit closer to the action. Each reel continues on like this, with five continuous episodic takes that pass by without edits. In fact, the closing credits state that “no hidden cuts were used in the making of this movie.”
These are techniques that set the movie apart, but also never let you forget that you’re watching a movie. The long takes and tracking shots can be distracting, but not as much as the dialogue. Hawkes elevates the occasionally weak, but ambitious script with a bravura performance that illustrates again why he’s one of the best character actors on the scene. The supporting cast includes Robert Forster (whose brief on-screen time feels phoned in), Joanna Cassidy, Vail Bloom, David Yow from The Jesus Lizard and former “Dollhouse” star Dichen Lachman.
It’s hard not to look at some of the technical aspects of the film and casting choices as gimmicks. “Too Late” is a throwback to indie films of the 1990s that we don’t see often anymore and that alone is enough to recommend it. Bonus points from me for a moody soundtrack that includes Nick Cave, the Cowboy Junkies and an original song performed by Hawkes on guitar.
The producers of “Too Late” are currently searching for a distributor that will commit to releasing it to theaters in 35mm. It screens again on film at the festival on Tuesday at 5:45 p.m.