Within the ever-growing annals of Tarantino knock-off cinema, there exists an endless litany of crime fiction pastiche dripping with self-referential dialogue and a crippling adoration for the very idea of cinema. As such, any movie with even a whiff of QT influence is immediately pegged as lesser-than, given how few of his imposters ever come close to matching his specific skill set, much less exceed it. But Dennis Hauck’s 2015 private eye flick Too Late remains the greatest entry in this strange milieu, despite being all but written off at the time of its release.

Too Late is an easy film to dismiss. Hauck heavily relied upon the film’s 35mm beginnings to a degree that only Christopher Nolan really gets away with anymore, choosing to conduct his non-linear crime story in five 22-minute one-take scenes. On paper, this sort of weaponized formalism sounds torturous. The abstract idea of a first-time filmmaker this ambitious immediately calls to mind all manner of failson framing, laborious and reflexive banter and an inordinate amount of semi-clever needle drops. But in execution, the film offers more than its initial promise.

The film’s first reel, an introductory prologue that suggests its belabored style may just be a showy exercise and not a film-length aesthetic, feels more like a test of the audience’s patience than a true beginning. For 22 straight minutes, Hauck’s camera lopes around Dorothy Mahler (Crystal Reed), a stripper stranded in the woods near Los Angeles. She’s on the run from something and enlists the help of an estranged acquaintance, private detective Sampson (John Hawkes). After a glutton’s smorgasbord of Tarantino-lite back and forth (an ongoing debate about movie theater snack food and whether or not movies should end with characters sharing VHS copies of the stories they just partook in), Dorothy is dead and a mystery begins.

But for anyone who can sit through that first, frustrating reel, the second immediately jumps to the film’s conclusion, with Sampson already having suffered through an off-screen noir thriller. It just jumps directly to him confronting the film’s Big Bad and laying out the shape of why Dorothy had to die. It’s a sharp send-up for film noir tropes, to be sure, but within these two reels, it’s Hawkes’ portrayal of Sampson that captures our gaze. As an audience, we’re not concerned with why Dorothy died, but rather why she was important to Sampson, what their connection was and why this entirely unseen ordeal weighs so heavily on his soul.

The film’s fourth reel sews up the climax from the second with a prolonged denouement at a drive-in theater, further worshipping at the altar of celluloid with a bunch of projectionist humor, and it’s final reel fills in some of the blanks with a flashback of sorts making plain the true nature of Sampson and Dorothy’s relationship. But Too Late’s true magic rests in its third reel, where we watch Sampson and Dorothy meet for the first time, at the strip club she works in.

The sequence is powerful enough to completely gloss over any of the film’s other failings, relying on the patience and tenderness of its one-take gimmick to really settle in with these two lead performances. The scene works as an island unto itself, doomed by the knowledge of where Dorothy ends up, but still curious and suspicious of Sampson’s interest in her in the first place. What unfolds is as beguiling and tragic a scene as any helmed in any genre in recent memory, but because it’s housed in the middle of a movie that seems more concerned with impressing Letterboxd users and rep theater programmers than regular audience members, it’s often overlooked.

Hauck has yet to make a follow-up to this film that ought to have helped him write his own ticket to future studio green lights, largely because of the deep black shadow Tarantinian genre exercises cast over fledgling auteurs. Perhaps a critical reassessment is necessary if we’re ever to see him improve upon this formula.

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