4:44 Last Day on Earth might be the most tranquil film about the end of human existence ever made. In the early moments of Abel Ferrara’s latest, we’re told that the ozone layer is finally succumbing to global pollution (an Al Gore interview is even re-contextualized as a somber “toldja!” moment) and that the Earth will go out in a scorching blaze of fire the following morning. Oddly enough, it would appear—based on the film’s mostly casual, meditative tempo—that everyone has known of their impending destruction for a while and has made peace with it. The film is about the bizarre comfort of knowing that the worst is without a doubt going to happen. That knowledge is freeing because you’re finally allowed to be the person you want or supposed to be, as inane and insane societal pressures have been effectively rendered moot.
Most of 4:44 Last Day on Earth is set in one of those NYC bohemian paradises that filmmakers love: a chic, disheveled loft that’s an ideal blend of the functional (1950ish kitchen) and the aesthetic (huge canvasses depicting humankind’s grand demise). The occupants are Cisco (Willem Dafoe), a gaunt, well-dressed, strangely sexy recovering addict, and Skye (Shanyn Leigh), his very young, very pretty painter lover. And the initial surprise of the film is, considering the doomsday context, how rational and lovely they mostly are both alone and together. Cisco Skypes friends and family, writes in his journal, and watches spiritual leaders on TV, while Skye works on her huge and ambitious paintings. Together, they make love a number of times and order Chinese food, and Skye tells the delivery boy that she was glad to have known him.
Ferrara is a bad-boy filmmaker known for intensely lurid films that teem with Catholic guilt (he makes Martin Scorsese’s work look fun-loving and blasé by comparison), but like many directors who’ve had a chance to gradually sort out their various demons over a filmmaking career that’s spanned decades, he’s mellowed out a bit. And this mellowing feels good in Ferrara’s work; his last few films were made with a sense of control and perspective, along with a newfound sense of play, that was becoming. If Ferrara had made his last film, Go Go Tales, 20 years earlier it could’ve very likely been a wallow in the despair of dead-end characters destined to crumble under the weight of their past sins, but instead it was a nearly jaunty black comedy about the obligations of commerce that was staged with a deceptively offhand mastery that recalled no one less than Jean Renoir.
4:44 Last Day on Earth has all of Ferrara’s favorite motifs (the studly sinner, the young cutie, the cleansing annihilation), but the filmmaker incorporates them in a manner that’s slightly tongue in cheek. Ferrara knows that Cisco, who’s a fantasy of a past incarnation of himself, is ludicrous, but he loves the mythologized (and idealized) version of torment that Cisco represents. 4:44 Last Day on Earth embodies that platitude of youth being wasted on the young; it’s a film about death made by an aging filmmaker who’s learned to chill out and enjoy the quotidian. The immoral panic that the apocalypse would almost certainly inspire—looting, rape, murder, etc.—is pointedly missing here. This film is Ferrara’s idealized vision of man acting civil to one another for one damn day.
There’s anger in that notion, of course. The implication obviously being “Why can’t we act like this to one another every day?,” which tells you that the old fire-and-brimstone Ferrara hasn’t entirely left the building. 4:44 Last Day on Earth is a blunt, sexy call for unmotivated kindness, and it’s one of the most moving and beautiful films of Ferrara’s career.
4:44 Last Day on Earth aesthetically resembles one of the splatter paintings that's featured throughout with its mixture of gritty and more traditionally lovely imagery. Many of the scenes set in the loft have an intentionally high level of graininess that's often contrasted with the velvety blacks and greens of the NYC skyline as the world approaches oblivion by fire. The Blu-ray transfer honors that striking contrast beautifully. Close-ups of faces in turmoil are intentionally blurry and chaotic, while more sensual images of stomachs and hands are pristinely creamy. And those skylines are beautiful. The sound is lush and, considering the intimacy of the production, nearly operatic at times. This is one small independent production that should be played loud.
Just a trailer.
The apocalypse gets the soul-searching erotic chamber play treatment in one of Abel Ferrara's best films.