Abel Ferrara is one of the most idiosyncratic and deeply personal American filmmakers working today. It doesn’t matter if Ferrara is making a horror movie about a lunatic with a drill, a character study of a cop gone extraordinarily bad, an epic-scale study of a New York criminal empire, or a documentary about a famous hotel -- by the time he’s finished with it, the movie will be filled to the brim with his personal obsessions, reflecting a constant war between the sacred and the profane, between the psychological and the spiritual, between salvation and agony. Since Ferrara has so often shoehorned his philosophical ideas into stories that are the stuff of grind-house fare, it’s both surprising and fitting that he’s finally made a film that seems tailor-made for the art-house crowd, although 4:44 Last Day on Earth doesn’t play out much differently than most of his work. It’s a story that’s deeply felt and emotionally edgy; it also struggles to reconcile the head and the heart, suggesting that neither is firing on all cylinders, though they’re clearly climbing forward for all they’re worth.
The sizable majority of 4:44 Last Day on Earth takes place in a single apartment in New York City that’s home to Cisco (Willem Dafoe), a writer in his late fifties, and his girlfriend Skye (Shanyn Leigh), a twentysomething artist. Cisco and Skye are struggling with their mortality, as is everyone else in the world; scientists have determined that the ozone layer has decayed at a far greater rate than anyone realized, and a final cataclysm that will destroy the planet will occur in a matter of hours, at 4:44 in the morning.
Outside, people are wandering the streets in a state of panic, partying away their final moments, gathering at the world’s religious centers, or simply waiting quietly with their loved ones for the end. Cisco and Skye are trying to pretend it’s just another day, as Cisco chats with friends via Skype and Skye works on a painting, but it doesn’t last; Skye eventually listens to lectures by the Dalai Lama and Eastern mystics, while Cisco watches a rerun of an interview with Al Gore in which he discusses the dangers of climate change.
Between bouts of prayer and lovemaking, Cisco and Skye quarrel after Cisco’s former lover (and the mother of his child) calls and they admit they still have feelings for each other (though their conversation reveals far more anger than affection). Cisco stops by a friend’s place, and we learn that he spent many years as a heroin addict; his final moral struggle is deciding whether he should watch the end of the world with a clear head and embrace the spectacle of Earth’s grand finale or blot out the apocalypse with opiates.
Ferrara’s movies usually deal with weighty matters as a subtext while focusing on sex, drugs, blood, and rock & roll, and even though 4:44 Last Day on Earth pushes many of the essential questions of human existence to the forefront, along the way the director still makes it clear he’s just as fixated on eroticism, music, powders, and the razor’s edge of human emotion. For all the philosophizing and quotes from a variety of deep thinkers, 4:44 Last Day on Earth is redolent of the sweat and bile that are Ferrara’s trademarks, and like many of his pictures, it’s as messy and full of loose ends as life itself. The pacing is inconsistent, the emotional landscape is uneven, and a bit too much of what happens seems implausibly convenient, but the work is too passionate to ignore even when it doesn’t click. It helps that Willem Dafoe is willing to go as far as the director needs, and he gives Cisco an admirable degree of shadings despite his frequent, high-pitched bouts of rage, sorrow, and lust; Shanyn Leigh is similarly willing to bare herself, emotionally as well as physically.
A fascinating handful of supporting players float through the film, from Paz de la Huerta and Natasha Lyonne to Anita Pallenberg, but Dafoe and Leigh are really co-starring with Ferrara in 4:44 Last Day on Earth; it’s his fevered vision of souls about to step into the ether that drives this picture, and if it isn’t always as coherent as you might like, you’re not likely to see as honest a depiction of a man staring into the soul of the entire world as you do in this picture. There are a few other filmmakers who might try something like this, but in no one else’s hands would the result be anything like what Ferrara has given us.