Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
July 2012

4:44 Last Day on Earth

With a whimper

Buoyed by Willem Dafoe's lead performance, '4:44 Last Day on Earth' is an intriguing experiment undone by its own literal mindset

4:44 Last Day on Earth
IFC Films
Director: Abel Ferrara
Screenplay: Abel Ferrara
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Shanyn Leigh, Paul Hipp, Dierdra McDowell, Natasha Lyonne and Trung Nguyen
Not rated / 1 hour, 25 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)

Earlier this year I wrote a piece discussing a trend toward a more abstract approach to apocalyptic scenarios in film. It was after seeing David Mackenzie's Perfect Sense, in which the end came in the form of the gradual loss of each of the five senses. That followed in line with a string of similarly themed films, among them Take Shelter, Children of Men and Blindness.

Here we have another impending apocalypse in Abel Ferrara's 4:44 Last Day on Earth, which has the same kind of existential ambitions but makes the fatal mistake of being far too literal-minded about it. Ferrara removes any curiosity about his conceits, presenting the reality of an all-too-familiar environmental catastrophe that will end life on Earth in about one day's time.

On one hand, I admire the earnestness of Ferrara's environmental concern. I share the same concern. However, he undermines the potency of the message by treating it as a plot gimmick. The more blatant he gets with it, the sillier it feels. Which is unfortunate because he actually does a fine job finessing the finer points of his characters' various states of mind in the face of the crisis, so we can see the roots of a really good movie here. But every time it cuts back to the TV explaining the reasons for everything, 4:44 loses itself.

The low-budget film takes place on the eponymous last day, primarily in a single location - a loft apartment in New York City where Cisco (Willem Dafoe) and Skye (Shanyn Leigh) are waiting for it all to end. Ferrara focuses specifically on that waiting. His camera glides around the open spaces of the apartment, taking in the uncomfortable silence, the central couple vacillating between desperate intimacy and chilly distance. From sex to hostility and back again.

Like much of Ferrara's work (i.e. Bad Lieutenant), 4:44 has religious overtones. He presents his apocalypse as biblical in nature, a proverbial storm to wash away the sins of mankind. On those terms, the film is ostensibly about the calm before that storm, and the characters' collective sense of disquiet in the face of a reality that can never really seem real until the moments just before it finally ends.

Ferrara shies away from the chaos and rioting that might result from the situation, opting for more of a chamber piece between the two lovers. Other characters make appearances - most prominently a group of fellow apartment dwellers that Cisco visits in the middle of the night - but it always goes right back to him and Skye.

There's a certain sense of paralysis that seems to have set in - at least within the tiny pockets of people the film explores, and with the noted exception of those who decide to end it on their own terms rather than the planet's. A man in a neighboring building throws himself off a roof. His body is dispassionately inspected by a few passers-by, then summarily ignored. Even Cisco - who screams at his neighbors to have some respect for the dead - ultimately does nothing about it, a victim of his own unavoidable apathy.

What he can and does do is lean on old impulses. He's a former drug addict and seems committed to sobriety. But with the world hours away from nonexistence, even Cisco and a fellow addict friend of his find it difficult to reason against shooting up one last time.

Earlier in the night, he gets in touch with his ex-wife (whom he left for Skye some time ago) via Skype and winds up pouring out what may or may not be his genuine feelings about her. The futility of hashing all that out at this particular point in time is lost on Cisco, who wanders through most of the film in a sort of fog, unsure of what he's supposed to be doing or feeling at any given moment. He (and, by extension, the film) is an intriguing contradiction of sincerity and (figuratively speaking) impotence. I'm not sure how many other actors could play the role with such a combination of ferocity and tenderness, the harsh angles of his face counterbalanced by the vulnerability in his eyes and body language. At times he even saves some bad dialogue by finessing it just the right way (Quick aside: He was also excellent in one of the year's more underrated films, Daniel Nettheim's The Hunter.)

That 4:44 Last Day on Earth works to the extent that it does is largely due to Dafoe's work in the central role. If Ferrara had been content to give as much subtlety to his premise as he did to his characters, this might have really worked. But those ideas being treated as literally as they are, the film, even in its best moments, can't escape its own shadow.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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