It’s only natural that Abel Ferrara’s vision of the end of the world should take corporeal form as a quasi-autobiographical hangout movie, since that’s been the kind of environment he’s been building over the last few years, working with ever more limited means, turning the camera inward, even lightening up a little. Like Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, 4:44 Last Day on Earth presents the apocalypse not so much as an exercise in genre play as an exercise in airing the auteur’s predilections, and an auto-therapeutic exorcism of the artist’s demons.
The underlying cause of Ferrara’s apocalypse is nothing so clear as von Trier’s, wherein Earth is dashed like an egg against the surface of a larger—and, given its name, sadder—planet. No, in 4:44 the end has something to do with Al Gore being right, that we screwed up and destroyed the ozone layer, and that, somehow, every man, woman, and child will bite the big one at exactly the same moment. Which makes sense until you think about it for three seconds or more. Ferrara writes himself into an F/X corner, rendering our instantaneous end as a swirl of Windows Media Player visualizations and a final fade to white.
On the other hand, knocking Ferrara for a cheap, Adobe After Effects apocalypse might be missing the point. Like the vampires-of-NYU in The Addiction, the end of the world could just be punctuation, a single, concave parenthetical against which he brings into sharp relief an informal sketch of whatever happens to be on his mind these days. He welcomes us into what may well be his own NoLita pad, overlooking Essex Street and the Williamsburg Bridge. His on-screen surrogate (Willem Dafoe) makes time with his artist girlfriend (Ferrara’s real-life main squeeze, Shanyn Leigh), listens to some musician friends’ jam session over Skype, and mutters or screams invectives as he paces across his rooftop patio.
Still, a reduction in scale, even from the effectively one-location Go Go Tales, gives the impression that the offbeat storyteller is spinning his wheels; when in doubt, Ferrara’s iPad looms into view, playing video of a transcendentalist musician-orator, or he dissolves to Herzogian (yeah, Abel, I went there) tableaux of African drummers, his buddy’s band, or loving close-ups of Shanyn’s art-in-progress. False drama makes an appearance here and there, as the couple have a row when she catches him talking to his ex-wife over Skype, or when he threatens to have a heroin relapse, mere hours before the big dissolve, or he tries to entice her into joining him for a brisk double suicide.
With its graphic sex scenes seeming to isolate Willem and his nubile young companion as the last couple in the universe, 4:44 might draw comparisons to another von Trier movie, but as Ferrara mellows out to elder-badass-statesman status, this is more like an anti-Antichrist, ultimately an affirmation of the yin-yang pair, only endangered by a brief, seriocomic spaz-out that’s over before it begins. Ferrara’s non-narrative impulses, here in full bloom, ensure that nothing is truly at stake—appropriate, given the circumstances.