REVIEW: Abel Ferrara's 4:44 Last Day on Earth — Apocalyptic Howler or Love Letter to NYC?
If you happen to live in a neighborhood with no Jehovah’s Witness ladies around to remind you that we’re living in the last days, wackadoodle director Abel Ferrara’s latest, 4:44 Last Day on Earth, is here to drive that truth home — or at least make you think about it just a little bit. Willem Dafoe plays an actor, Cisco, facing what he, and everybody else, knows is the Earth’s last day, thanks to an ozone layer that dissolved faster than anyone expected. He spends that last day writing in his journal, watching video footage of some fake-inspirational guru-dude, reaching out to his daughter and assorted pals via Skype and, most importantly, making sweet, crazy, soft-core love to his dishy, much-younger girlfriend, painter Skye (Shanyn Leigh), in the couple’s artsy, faux-ramshackle Manhattan loft. What a way to go!
And yet, for an Abel Ferrara movie at least, 4:44 Last Day on Earth is surprisingly restrained. It doesn’t have the loosey-goosey dress-up-box vibe of the director’s 2007 Go Go Tales (also starring Dafoe), or the lackadaisical silliness of his 2005 Blessed Virgin thriller Mary (which featured a post-Big Fish, pre-La Vie en Rose Marion Cotillard, though I don’t remember a thing about her performance). 4:44 is, like the aforementioned movies, often laughable — watching the excessively craggy Dafoe and the excessively nubile Leigh roll around on their pre-Apocalyptic mattress was certainly good for a giggle. But the picture is also weirdly compelling, maybe most notably for the way Dafoe’s character — who is, in this respect, perhaps a stand-in for the Bronx-born Ferrara — seems to be grappling less with the idea that the world is ending than that the city is ending.
Ferrara integrates lots of — perhaps too much — found TV footage of people around the world worshiping, lighting candles, and doing whatever it is people would be likely to do on the Earth’s last day. This stuff is boring and kind of dumb. But Ferrara brings some surprising gracefulness to the mix too: At one point Cisco and Skye order take-out, as any red-blooded New Yorker would do — when the world is ending, who has the energy to cook? When the Vietnamese delivery boy shows up, Cisco asks him, patronizingly, if he knows what’s going on. (He also tips the kid what might be $40 or $60, because, well, why not?) Then he asks, more kindly, if he can do anything for the boy, who responds by indicating that he’d like to contact his family back home via Skype. He speaks with them for a few minutes, but the movie’s sweetest moment comes just after he closes the lid of the MacBook: He stoops down to kiss it.
Ferrara has some fun exploring both the high-tech and low-tech ways in which a human being, on the last day of mankind’s existence, might reach out to others. At one point Cisco steps out on his roof deck and lift a pair of field glasses to his eyes, the better to peep through his neighbors’ windows: He sees groups of people huddled together quietly; he also sees a man who’s just cooked a steak for himself, cutting a portion for his begging dog. In the city, looking through other people’s windows is sometimes voyeurism (benign or otherwise), but often it’s just a casual means of human connection, a point Ferrara makes beautifully here.
And then there’s the Internet, which connects us all for better or worse. Ferrara can’t seem to get enough of Skype — but then, who among us can? After Cisco and Skye have a lover’s spat that really might be the end of the world, she rushes to her computer to Skype with mom, and what should pop up on the screen but the blessedly unfixed and unadorned face of Anita Pallenberg, who, in a voice that sounds either like the Devil or a lifetime of too many cigarettes (or both) tells her daughter how much she loves her and that she’s proud of her. She also tries to comfort her in the world’s last moments with a piece of advice that’s halfway between outright howler and sage mommy wisdom: “Just go to another sphere and it will be all right.” That’s sort of a metaphor for the act of watching Ferrara’s movies — going to another sphere is always required. At least in the case of 4:44 Last Day on Earth, it really is kind of all right.
Read Movieline's profile of 4:44 Last Day on Earth director Abel Ferrara here.