In writer/director Abel Ferrara’s vision of the apocalypse, Chinese joints deliver right up until the end. The media’s “live coverage” continues almost as long. Sorry, haters: “Al Gore was right,” says NY1’s Pat Kiernan, playing himself. The ozone layer, Pat tells us, has dissipated “far more rapidly than even the worst doomsayer could have imagined,” and now life on Earth is certain to end for good at 4:44 a.m., Eastern Standard Time.
In Ferrara’s 4:44 Last Day on Earth, Cisco (Willem Dafoe) and his much-younger girlfriend, Skye (played by the 60-year-old Ferrara’s own much-younger girlfriend, Shanyn Leigh), begin the last night in their Lower East Side loft with fractured focus, their attention divided between multiple TV and computer screens, simultaneous iPhone and Skype calls. While Skye meditates and obsessively splatters paint on a giant canvas, Cisco is increasingly drawn to New York City itself, an organism apparently oblivious to its expiration date.
Impending doom is both mentally all-consuming and incomprehensible; with no way to prevent the inevitable, time becomes the enemy. (When Cisco dozes off after he and Skye make love for possibly the last time, he yells at her for not waking him up.) The ticking clock effectively set, Ferrara’s characters essentially make the worst of it. In this moment of highest anxiety, they fall back on the stale running dramas of their lives: Will ex-junkie Cisco blow a couple of years sobriety by cooking up one last time? Is this middle-age father really over the ex he left, as his daughter’s mother puts it on Skype, to “run off with the teenager”?
Ferrara’s own continued collaboration with Leigh (who was perfectly cast as a cabaret ballerina in his excellent, never-properly-distributed Go Go Tales, but less so as Janis Joplin in doc Chelsea on the Rocks‘ fantasy flashbacks) is charming. But her unmodulated shrillness doesn’t exactly add weight to the existential panic convincingly portrayed by Dafoe. At least Ferrara uses her limited talents productively: The scene in which she embraces the Chinese delivery boy with the cry, “I’m so glad I knew you!” is hilarious, intentionally or otherwise.
4:44 Last Day on Earth is Ferrara’s first narrative feature since 2007’s Go Go Tales—he has made three documentaries in the interim—and it almost finds a middle ground between fiction and non. It’s both chamber drama and experimental found-footage film, relying heavily on appropriated media (Al Gore explaining the human role in climate change on Charlie Rose; video of the Dalai Lama speaking on man’s responsibility to the natural world) to provide context and subtext to its disaster fiction. The use of stock footage eventually approaches overkill in the montage-heavy climax. Much more impressive is the way Ferrara uses his own “documentary” footage of the city—the steady stream of cabs, the fully occupied row of ellipticals in the gym spotted above a 24-hour Duane Reade—and transforms it, imbuing real images of “normal” life with supernatural dread.