Out of Time Delivered Sunbaked Neo-Noir Excellence

Movies Features Denzel Washington
Out of Time Delivered Sunbaked Neo-Noir Excellence

Matt Whitlock is in trouble. His mistress, Ann, and her husband have died, their house blown to smithereens. His ex-wife, Alex, is the homicide detective assigned to the case, operating out of the Banyan Key, Florida station where he’s Chief of Police. She’s trying to obtain Ann’s phone records, documents that will show the litany of conversations Ann and Matt have been having across their affair. He had nothing to do with her death, but this information will put him right in her crosshairs and make him the prime target. Everything will come crashing down as more of his misdeeds surface, including the $485,000 he stole from the evidence safe to help Ann out before her death. Half a million dollars that the DEA are on their way to pick up. Half a million dollars that he doesn’t have. It’s not looking good.

With Alex and her team mere feet away—frantically on phone calls conducting their investigation and having conversations that circle them closer and closer to Matt’s tail—the Chief has to prevent Ann’s records from coming through the station’s fax machine. Sweat pouring down his face, he pulls a series of crafty maneuvers, like removing the paper from the machine, to buy himself some time. Just two, three more minutes to think before they find his bit of sabotage and correct the issue. Utilizing zooms, pans and expert cross-cutting, Out of Time director Carl Franklin and leading man Denzel Washington capture the nervy desperation of Whitlock in a scene more gripping than any bullet-riddled shootout could be. All centered around a fax machine.

This sequence appears midway through Franklin’s 2003 sunbaked neo-noir Out of Time, and it’s a perfect encapsulation of why the film endures as a sterling example of quality cinematic entertainment. Like Whitlock, the director isn’t playing with the biggest sandbox, but he’s bringing ingenuity to the table that allows us to feel our pulse racing, our heart beating through our chest as we are pushed along every step of the way through Whitlock’s Hitchcockian journey for salvation. While his ex Alex (Eva Mendes) is attempting to uncover how Ann (Sanaa Lathan) and her husband Chris (Dean Cain) died, and who killed them, Whitlock is on his own quest for the truth with one major caveat—he’s also trying to ensure that he doesn’t become the leading, and likely only, suspect.

Out of Time comes on like a cool glass of lemonade on a hot summer day, featuring Denzel at the peak of his powers and an impeccably laidback aesthetic somewhere between the palpable sweat of Body Heat and the orange-hued romanticism of Tony Scott. Working from a script by David Collard, it would be easy for Franklin to get lost in the narrative minutiae of the story, which includes (among other things) longstanding high school rivalries, fake doctors, manufactured cancer, old-fashioned femme fatale hoodwinking, charred bodies and about 10 different people all within one piece of information of putting Whitlock either behind bars or six feet in the dirt.

One of Franklin’s greatest attributes is the economy of his filmmaking, an understanding of exactly where to place the perspective of the viewer to maintain our knowledge of everything in the frame. The director meticulously storyboards action sequences and it pays off in dividends, like in Out of Time’s combustive centerpiece where Whitlock confronts a person of interest in a hotel, only to be jumped and a brawl ensuing. Despite the exaggerated mechanics of the plot, Out of Time maintains a sense of reality, seen here in the sloppiness of the fight between these two. There are no martial arts on display. Rather, it’s a raw and ragged bruiser with limbs flying and objects being thrown; anything these guys can do to take each other out. 

In an interview around the time of release, Franklin noted his surprise that Washington signed on for the film, thinking it wasn’t the kind of picture that the man who had recently won his second Oscar would be interested in. 

“In this particular case, it’s just entertainment,” the director said. “It’s all about the narrative, more so than it is about the characters, so that kind of distances an actor.” 

While that statement speaks to Franklin’s vision and ability to keep the viewer locked into the film’s twists and turns, it also doesn’t give enough credit to his skill for getting the most out of his cast. With years of experience in front of the screen, mostly on television series including The Rockford Files, The Incredible Hulk and The A-Team, Franklin has always known what does and doesn’t work for an actor, and he gives them the freedom to live in these characters’ shoes. 

This characterization is key to why Out of Time sings so beautifully. From minute one, Franklin and his cast embed us into a world with texture, with characters who have rich, felt history on the screen. The sizzling chemistry between Whitlock and Ann burns so hot because we feel their past in these moments, that they were high school sweethearts and he’s returning back to a former flame when his marriage has come undone. In the opening scene between them, we get an immediate dose of the film’s cheeky sense of humor, as Ann begins to orally pleasure Whitlock and, over his walkie talkie, his fellow officers are telling him “Chief, you gotta get down to the Scuttlebutt, we’ve got a situation that’s about to blow” and “Chief, you need to come now.” 

That charming bit of playfulness extends to our introduction to Ann’s husband Chris, a marvelously cast Cain in full scumbag mode, complete with goatee. You can feel Whitlock’s hate for this man seething from every pore, as he hits him with little barbs like suggesting that Chris get some crab at a local restaurant. When Chris responds that he’s allergic, Whitlock quickly bounces back with a shit-eating grin: “I know.” 

It’s not all fun and games between the two, however, as there’s some macho posturing in one of the film’s standout scenes, where Chris confronts Whitlock at a bar about his suspicions that Ann is cheating on him (which she is, with Whitlock) and how he’d love to do something “the next time that little pussy comes around.” With his gleaming pearly whites that light up the room and a cute little earring on for extra pizzazz, the petty little scamp Whitlock finds some clear amusement in Chris subtly calling him a pussy to his face. Looking right into Chris’ eyes, Whitlock says, “Maybe this guy, maybe there’s nothing he’d rather do than tell you that you’re a lousy husband and that you don’t deserve Ann. Maybe there’s nothing he’d rather do than walk up in your face, look you right in the eye and say to you, ‘Chris, I’m banging your wife… good.’” It’s a positively electric sequence that exemplifies how, to make a great scene, you don’t need flashy lights and big explosions. You just need some well-written dialogue and two actors locked into each other. 

Perhaps nowhere is history better felt in Out of Time than between Whitlock and Alex, the latter of whom serves him divorce papers before they become locked into investigating the case together. Two years after Mendes had a small supporting role with Washington in Training Day, the duo have an effortless rapport that communicates the passionate rivalry of scorned lovers still burning a flame for one another. The bickering pair are fully believable as a couple on the ropes, and it makes it all the more exhilarating to watch Whitlock on the worst day of his life: Trying to get himself out of this predicament while in the room with the one person who knows him best, and is best equipped to take him down.

In a bit of irony, it would likely be harder to root for Whitlock if he was a man without sin, a beacon of decency without any skeletons in his closet. The layers make him all the more human. This isn’t a shiny, flawless protagonist—he’s no innocent victim. Yes, he is being framed for a crime he didn’t commit, but part of the tension is in the fear that the massive one he did commit will also be uncovered. 

“He’s very complex, which is what I thought was interesting,” Washington said of the character. “He’s human, stupid, arrogant, a big fish in a small pond, and worse than an adulterer. I see this as very much a film about temptation.” 

This is a guy who was fed up with lounging around and letting life pass him by, so he stuck his hand in the cookie jar and found fire inside ready to burn him hard. 

Through it all, Whitlock has one thing that he can rely on: Chae (Peter Billingsley). A medical examiner and Whitlock’s best friend, Chae is as chill as they come and always in Whitlock’s corner. Given the film they’re in, and the way it trades on its noir influence, there’s a slight suspicion that Chae is a little too good to be true and eventually there will be some reveal that he’s in on the plan to frame his pal—that he’s the ultimate Brutus. Instead, the big twist here is that Chae really is just this darn good of a dude, a guy who will hear the mountain of evidence that points toward Whitlock being a thief and a murderer and still trusts that his friend is innocent—oh, and also very much wants him to get back together with his ex, because he believes in true love. 

It’s that kind of subversion that makes Out of Time a refreshing jolt, a cool breeze in the sweltering Florida summer night. At every turn, Franklin and company keep you on your toes as you’re wondering how Whitlock could possibly make it through each new obstacle, and somehow through quick ingenuity he pulls it off time and time again. Just five more minutes, just a few more breaths to clear some space for him to think right and put it all together. It’s a film built on character and story, constructing everything around that—with creative flourishes like an entire sequence hinged on the suspense of whether Denzel Washington can get to a fax in time, making that the most exciting scene of the entire film. Utterly genius.

Currently based in Newark, Delaware, Mitchell Beaupre is the Senior Editor at Letterboxd, and a freelance film journalist for sites including The Film Stage, Paste Magazine, and Little White Lies. With every new movie they watch, they’re adding five more to their never-ending Letterboxd watchlist. You can find them on Twitter at @itismitchell.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin