Abel Ferrara's movies often take place in a world dominated by destructive tendencies that range from corruption and perversion to Catholic guilt. "4:44 Last Day on Earth," Ferrara's first New York production in a decade, takes that fixation even further by imagining the end of the world. With a cryptic, meandering style, Ferrara presents his surprisingly understated apocalyptic vision as a therapeutic process. Likely his most personal work, it's also ironically the most life-affirming in a career defined by anger and grime. Ferrara has gone soft without selling out.
[Editor's Note: A version of this review originally ran during the New York Film Festival. "4:44 Last Day on Earth" opens in limited theatrical release this Friday.]
For the majority of "4:44," successful actor Cisco (Willem Dafoe) and his young painter wife Skye (Shanyn Leigh, Ferrara's real-life girlfriend) spend their final hours hanging around their roomy loft in the Lower East Side. Global warming has taken its toll ("Al Gore was right," someone concludes) and the receding ozone layer means that the entire planet will burn away at the early morning hour of the title.
Skye lobs paints at canvases stretched across their floor, creating art as meaningless as the little time the couple has left on the planet. Meanwhile, Cisco goes through moods ranging from outright fury to resignation. He makes a few calls on Skype, conjuring up digital images of his ex-wife and teenage daughter in a facile last-ditch attempt to make amends. From their rooftop, he unleashes obscenities at other tenants and mutters frustrations to the wind. A lingering drug addiction threatens to show itself one last time. Skye is alternately at peace and mortified, taking her rage out on Cisco while keeping him close. The end is near, but the couple has a lot of baggage to unload.
The scenario has precedent in Don McKellar's 1998 drama "Last Night," which centers on the final six hours for a number of mostly young, hip people; that film turns into a conventional feel-good romance. By contrast, Ferrara's movie inhabits its own genre.
Unlike the science-fiction territory of the director's first-rate horror effort, "Body Snatchers," "4:44" simultaneously mocks the world and embraces it. Technology, rendered increasingly useless by the end of times, swirls about the characters: Computers, cell phones and snippets of media reports encompass their surroundings until everything goes dark for the finale. Early on, the movie takes on a dreamlike quality with a sex scene shot entirely in close-ups. Later, both Skye and Cisco meditate and the movie goes into a trance along with them. The end of the world presents numerous opportunities to appreciate it. This is the quintessential New York filmmaker's belated post-9/11 movie, committed to coming to terms with chaos.
As a result, personal conversations revolve around a general disinterest in the planet's fate. "It's been ending ever since it started," says Cisco's seedy drug dealer, who spends his final hours doing lines. Skye's mother offers a gentler resignation to her daughter: "You've done everything you can do to have a face in this world they've destroyed." These dialogue-driven exchanges form the heart of the movie, which continually makes bold grasps at profundity despite an erratic and confusing trajectory.
By virtue of sheer serendipity if not the zeitgeist, "4:44" showed up at the latest edition of the New York Film Festival alongside another existential movie about the end of the world, Lars Von Trier's "Melancholia." Von Trier has made a powerful epic, possibly his finest accomplishment, while Ferrara aims for something much smaller. Still, the two movies have a lot in common. Mainly, they use the setting as a means of exploring certain fears and anxieties rather than applying those emotions to tell a broader story. However, while both "4:44" and "Melancholia" examine the search for solace in imminent destruction, only Ferrara celebrates the process.
criticWIRE grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Picked up by Sundance Selects shortly after its premiere in Venice, "4:44" may not translate into a big commercial success but Ferrara has enough of a following to sustain the movie in limited theatrical release.