Abel Ferrara: 4:44 Last Day on Earth (2011)

Gore was right: let’s talk on Skype

It’s an ecodisaster: Gore was right, talking to Charlie Rose. So was the Dalai Lama. So were various other people seen on TV randomly in Willem Dafoe’s loft apartment in New York as he hangs out with his girlfriend and talks to various people on Skype and in person, skipping over fire escapes to peek in on some friends whom he hasn’t seen for some time.

The girlfriend paints bad Jackson Pollack knockoffs as they wait for the end. A TV anchorman excuses himself to go home to be with his family because, you see, this is the last day on earth. It’s all going to explode, or something, later.

When you know the planet and all living things are finished, what do you do? Probably not spend your time with Cisco (Dafoe), a nervous worrier with nothing particularly interesting to say, or his young girlfriend Skye (Shanyn Leigh, the director’s girlfriend), an insecure lass in pink silk pajamas (she later changes to a small dark dress) with artistic pretensions and jealous feelings toward Cisco’s ex. One of the difficulties with dramatizing their efforts to make things right before the end is that we know little about them and less about their friends and family. For example, when Cisco arrives at his friends’ apartment via fire escape and spends a little itme talking to them, we never quite learn who they are. There’s a discussion of whether a man long in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction would want to go back to using now, since it’s all over, so to speak. He doesn’t. He wants to see the big bang bright and clear, not numbed by substances. Cisco isn’t so sure. He thinks if there was ever a time to get high, it’s now. This is a discussion that anyone in recovery would be familiar with.

Most of the screen time is spent at Cisco’s loft studio apartment on the lower east side, where very little is happening, except for the mutimedia display provided by Ferrara’s setup of computer, big screen TV, iPad, and other gadgetry. Cisco and Skye take refuge in sex for a while, which involved an up close squence of him caressing her naked arse and thighs that is very uncomfortable to watch. Again, the Skype farewells, when Cisco’s to his ex-wife causes Skye to scream and grab Cisco and the laptop. Rarely have we seen such a dramatic Skype exchange. Come to think of it rarely have we seen so many Skype conversations in a film. The best Skype moment is provided by a Chinese food delivery boy who asks to Skype his family in China. We don’t know what they’re saying — no subtitles are provided — but when he kisses the screen, closes the laptop, and kisses it, then walks out bowing after his hosts have hugged him and given him money, it’s clumsy, but also quite touching. Skye is prompted to appeal to her mother, also on Skype. In this role Anita Pallenberg briefly provides some European maturity and good taste.

Ferrara hits his technology/media theme hard, but not to great benefit.

This film looks pathetic when one has recently watched Part II of Von Trier’s Melancholia, which achieves grandeur and solemnity with a similar theme. Ferrara’s film suffers not so much from a lack of budget as from a lack of vision, lack of explanation for the apocalypse, lack of structure for the story, lack of plot and lack of interesting dialogue. Ferrara delivers a positive message about reuniting with loved ones at the end, but the context never gives it an emotional punch. There’s a disaster here, but it’s not the plot, it’s the whole movie. 4:44 is as unfortunate as the selective New York Film Festival’s main slate choices ever get.

Ferrara has his devoted fans, some of whom seem to be members of the New York Film Festival selection jury. His Go Go Tales, not appreciably better than this, was part of the 2007 NYFF. Ferrara at his best, as in King of New York (1990, with Christopher Walken),Bad Lieutenant (1992, with a fearless Harvey Keitel), and The Funeral (1996, again with Waken), is always chaotic, but the chaos in those films contains solid meat you don’t find here. Fans will be glad that after a long break the director returns to his native NYC, but the film doesn’t open up enough to make good use of the location. This time the chaos just seems like diffuseness, and even certainty of imminent death fails to focus the characters’ thoughts sufficiently.

4:44 was shown at Venice and, as mentioned, the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, where it was screened for this review. It will be released commercially by IFC Films.