That the neo-noirish mystery "Too Late" was shot on 35mm film and is showing only in that once-ubiquitous format makes it something of a cinematic event in these hyper-digital times. But its unique technical and structural aspects — it unfolds in a series of five 20-minute uncut takes — prove only a part of this enjoyable movie's appeal.
First-time feature writer-director Dennis Hauck has crafted a strangely involving, idiosyncratic masterwork that echoes the style of such filmmakers as Quentin Tarantino, Robert Altman and even "Welcome to L.A.'s" Alan Rudolph (who gets a passing shout-out here), while amusingly honoring classic detective movie tropes. The winks and nods come fast and furious, so an acquaintance with film history and gumshoe fiction helps maximize the fun.
John Hawkes nimbly embodies hard-boiled, world-weary Mel Sampson, a Los Angeles private eye on the case of the missing Dorothy (Crystal Reed), a pretty young stripper from his past. Sampson's blood-and-booze-soaked search takes him — in nonlinear order — to Elysian Park's Radio Hill, a showy Hollywood Hills home, a West Adams strip club and music cafe, an unusual drive-in theater (shot at an actual Barstow venue) and the Beverly Hilton. Pay close attention: Though chronology shifts, each segment is intriguingly linked by many narrative references and puzzle pieces.
En route, Sampson encounters a rogues' gallery of L.A. denizens including a movie-loving park ranger (Brett Jacobsen); a sketchy drug-dealing duo (Dash Mihok, Rider Strong); a fat-cat strip club owner (Robert Forster) and his desperate trophy wife (Vail Bloom); a surly mixed-race stripper (Dichen Lachman) and a genial folk singer (Sally Jaye, as herself).
But it's Dorothy's mother (Natalie Zea) and grandmother (Joanna Cassidy) who provide the story's deepest, most authentic emotional beats. Hauck wisely positions their segment last — though it places second chronologically — which gives the story a revelatory punch.
Dialogue, design, music and allusions evoke a mix of eras and vibes to mostly engaging effect. Hauck, with a strong assist from Bill Fernandez's clever, well-modulated Techniscope lensing, impressively choreographs the movie's continuous takes with a nice balance of intimacy and breadth. Hauck's a talent to watch.
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Playing: Sundance Sunset Cinemas, West Hollywood