Written by: Abel Ferrara.
Starring: Willem Dafoe (Cisco), Shanyn Leigh (Skye), Natasha Lyonne (Tina), Paul Hipp (Noah), Dierdra McDowell (Cisco's Ex), Triana Jackson (JJ), Trung Nguyen (Li / Delivery Boy), Anita Pallenberg (Diana), José Solano (Javi), Judith Salazar (Carmen), Jimmy Valentino (Karaoke Singer), Paz de la Huerta (Girl on Street), Pat Kiernan (News Anchor).
At this point, I’m not sure what’s more a cliché – the big budget Hollywoood epic about the potential end of the world, that somehow all works out in the end, or the low budget end of the world indies where it doesn’t work out, but the world ends with a whimper instead of bang, and concentrates on just a few people going through a fairly normal day until it ends. I have seen too many of both of those movies. Lars von Trier’s Melancholia from last year managed to seem fresh, because it wasn’t a big budget, but it didn’t treat the end of the world as a whimper either – it was a melodramatic tour de force. Abel Ferrara’s 4:44 Last Day on Earth on the other hand is the same old indie, end of the world drama. Yes, it has moments that feel fresh and original – mainly because of the improvisational feel of the film, but for the most part it struggles through its slight running time.
Everyone knows the world is coming to end, tomorrow morning at 4:44, give or take a few minutes. The movie doesn’t really tell us why, but it is either because the ozone layer or global warming, or some combination thereof – and essentially, Al Gore was right, as one TV anchor begrudgingly admits before signing off for the last time. The movie takes place almost entirely in the apartment of Cisco (Willem Dafoe), a recovering drug addict and his younger girlfriend Skye (Shanyn Leigh), who Cisco left his wife and nearly grown daughter for. They go through the motions of trying to be normal – Cisco shaving, talking on Skype to his friends, and Skye tries to finish one last painting before the end.
As a filmmaker, Abel Ferrara has had an interesting career – going from exploitation films like The Driller Killer and Ms. 45, into strange, violent genre films like King of New York, Body Snatchers (the most underrated of the many versions that story), and The Addiction into his more improvisational, low budget art films of recent years. Still probably best known for the extremely dark and disturbing Bad Lieutenant (1992), Abel Ferrara has grown as an artist, while still maintaining his dark, dirty roots.
In all honesty, I cannot make heads or tails of Ferrara when I look at his films as a whole – most of them contain absolutely stunning moments, but quite often, they are stranded in a sea of excess. So it is with 4:44 Last Day on Earth, which makes the most of Willem Dafoe, once again showing why he’s one of the most fearless actors on the planet. His performance is great – intense, haunted, creepy, sexual full of remorse, and even hints at something quite spiritual. By comparison, Shanyn Leigh looks like an amateur – perhaps because she somewhat is. She only has 5 acting credits to her name – and 4 of them are in Ferrara films (Mary, Go Go Tales and Napoli, Napoli, Napoli along with this one). Dafoe is so intense, and authentic, that he outshines her.
There are some great moments though – the sex scenes have a rawness to them that is rare in most movies (but not for Ferrara). A side trip that Dafoe makes outside the apartment to visit some old drug buddies gets the improvisational right, that so much of the rest of the movie gets wrong – it feels real, perhaps because the rest of the actors are better than Leigh, and seem to more fully buy into the spirit of the movie. Dafoe carries the movie throughout, but as it goes along, you get a little disappointed that with an actor and director combo of him and Ferrara, two guys who are not afraid of taking chances, play everything so safe – Dafoe’s argument with his ex-wife is like something out of a bad TV melodrama. And Ferrara’s political and spiritual points are made early and often – and quite frankly are far too safe and uninteresting.
Ferrara is unquestionably a unique film artist – he is capable of such strange visuals, and is willing to go to dark places that most filmmakers wouldn’t dare. In 4:44 Last Day on Earth, I’m disappointed he didn’t push himself farther – if you’re going to end the world in your film, you might as well go for broke.