Dennis Hauck’s Too Late is proof, above all else, that the world doesn’t lack for Quentin Tarantino imitators. The writer-director apes QT’s verbal wit and flaunts his own encyclopedic movie knowhow throughout, but Hauck, also a film purist, intends to screen his debut feature—shot in the 2-perf Techniscope format favored by low-budget productions starting in the 1960s for its ability to yield a longer runtime in a single reel—exclusively on film in theaters across the country. That’s commitment, and not even Tarantino has yet tried Hauck’s gimmick of shooting each reel in one long take. But neither of those novelties are enough to erase the impression that Too Late is a Tarantino rip-off fatally oblivious of its instant datedness.
It’s bad enough that the font used for Too Late’s opening credits is directly lifted from Pulp Fiction, but soon after, when Dorothy (Crystal Reed) makes a distressed phone call to Sampson (John Hawkes), the camera pans over to two small-time drug dealers (Dash Mihok and Rider Strong) as they crack wise about the clichés of crime dramas of the type we’re about to watch, with one of them invoking, of all films, Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead.
And the secondhand Tarantino-isms don’t stop there: a character compares park rangers to strippers, saying they both appreciate “natural beauty”; one of the film’s reels begins with a character saying, “Please pardon the interruption while we change reels”; a former stripper is seen running a drive-in movie theater that shows films like Alan Rudolph’s Choose Me, while her projection booth features a cinephile-flattering Ms. 45 poster on one of its walls.
Buried somewhere underneath the self-consciously clever dialogue and stunt filmmaking is the story of Sampson, a private detective who, plagued with regret over a past misdeed, avenges the death of Dorothy, who’s knocked off during the first reel. But Hauck, in his slavish devotion to Tarantino, resorts to scrambling the story’s chronology, turning it into the mystery of Sampson and Dorothy’s exact connection. Even the film’s big reveal, which is meant to complicate our impression of Sampson as essentially a stand-up guy, isn’t enough to banish the suspicion that all of Hauck’s narrative hopscotching is little more than a superficial ploy to gussy up a clichéd redemption tale.
Hawkes manages to survive this intolerably preening mess with a performance finely calibrated to encompass both macho swagger and quiet vulnerability. There’s poignancy in the song Sampson sings and plays on a guitar at a bar, as well as in a climactic confrontation in which you can sense the strain in his voice to keep his emotions in check as he reveals a crucial piece of painful personal information. But Hawkes’s wounded soulfulness is for naught, as Too Late is less concerned with Sampson’s anguish than it is with offering yet another round of too-cool-for-school movie references and attitude.