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“A film should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order.” So goes Jean-Luc Godard’s oft-repeated bon mot, and he is just one of many influences Dennis Hauck displays in his debut film, “Too Late.”

Divided into five parts, often cleverly connected, “Too Late” begins somewhere near the middle of the story.

It wastes no time explaining the title. Dorothy (Crystal Reed) wanders around a wooded, lonely place in LA. She calls private investigator Mel Sampson (a gaunt and tortured John Hawkes), reminding him of their past liaison and asking for help with an undisclosed problem.

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Sampson drives to her rescue. Dorothy, meanwhile, passes the time unwisely chatting with unsavory strangers and by the time Sampson gets there he is. . . (Cue the title).

A few things you’ll notice. First, like the beginning of “Touch of Evil” and “The Player” (and the entirety of “Russian Ark”), this segment, as well as the other four, seemingly consists of one take, incorporating long tracking shots, slow zooms, portentous pans, and an occasional split screen. Second, without this showy technical tour de force, the noirish plot and characters would barely register.

This is a film about film — not necessarily the art form, but the 35mm celluloid itself — shot by a camera, put on reels, and projected to an audience (Hauck insists that “Too Late” be viewed no other way). Hauck achieves this formal self-consciousness sometimes with admirable invention and cleverness. One segment begins with a black screen and a woman announcing that there will be a brief pause while she changes a reel. But it’s not a “Persona”-like break in the illusion; it’s part of the narrative, setting up the next scene in a battered drive-in showing “Carnival of Lost Souls.”

At a certain point, though, one has to wonder: To what end is all this showing off? There’s a long scene in which a woman wanders, oblivious to the fact she’s naked from the waist down. That might be Hauck’s way of alluding to Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts,” but it was gratuitous and creepy when Altman did it, too.

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With “Too Late,” Hauck confirms that he’s a master of the film medium. What’s less convincing is why this film matters.

★ ★½

TOO LATE

Written and directed by Dennis Hauck. Starring John Hawkes, Dichen Lachman, Sydney Tamiia Poitier, Robert Forster, Crystal Reed, Jeff Fahey. At the Brattle. 107 minutes. Unrated (gratuitous nudity and fancy formalism).


Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.