Perhaps better presented as a short film or fleshed out into a half-decent stage production, 4:44 Last Day on Earth is Abel Ferrara’s barebones, superficial musing on the hypothetical “What would happen if everyone knew the world was ending”? (Think Don McKellar’s Last Night, only less Canadian.) Cisco (Willem Dafoe), an actor and former junkie, and Skye (Shanyn Leigh), his young artist girlfriend, await the disintegration of the ozone in just a few hours time, coping with their dire reality individually. She splatters paint on a canvas and changes her outfit every hour or two and he Skypes last goodbyes while watching the world’s final newscast, in which the anchor laments, “Al Gore was right.”
Ferrara, in part, wants his film to be a warning, a call to action aimed at mankind to help our deteriorating planet. The TV in Cisco and Skye’s apartment acts as the director’s voice, serving up a constant stream of “we warned you” interviews from the likes of the Dalai Lama and even Mr. Gore himself. The environmentalist angle doesn’t quite work for this apocalyptic film though. This story and these characters naturally gravitate toward themes of fear and acceptance, and Ferrara’s tree-hugger condemnations feel opportunistically slathered onto 4:44 Last Day on Earth, most excruciatingly during Cisco’s trippy meditative dream, which includes visions of himself viciously chopping down a tree in slow motion.
Ferrara spends way too much time on filler scenes that seem to exist only to puff up the film’s running time to feature-length—meaningless montages, lengthy sex scenes, and monologues that don’t exactly deepen the characters—while appearing to stumble upon the insightful, effective moments, mostly simple dialogue scenes, as if by accident. Whether via Skype or face to face, these conversations, mostly stripped of Ferrara’s directorial meddling, offer the most value to the film and momentarily give its premise some dramatic weight.
At one point, Cisco, angry with Skye (and the world), treks across New York City to a friend’s apartment and climbs in through the living room window to find a quartet of pals from the good old days just sitting around waiting for the fireworks to start. The ensuing conversation and borderline argument is one of 4:44 Last Day on Earth’s stronger scenes, because through it, Ferrara conveys Cisco’s anger and confrontational attitude much more naturally than when he has the character inexplicably rant and rave on a rooftop. When Cisco longingly watches his friends over Skype as they hold an end-of-the-world jam session, or when he lends his webcam to the Asian delivery boy so he can give his final, untranslated goodbyes to his own family, the film finds the poignancy it’s been seeking all along, but these moments are sadly the exception to the rule.
The 49th New York Film festival runs from September 30 to October 16. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.