“In a large apartment high above the city lives our couple. They’re in love. She’s a painter, he’s a successful actor. Just a normal afternoon – except that this isn’t a normal afternoon, for them or anyone else. Because tomorrow, at 4:44 am, give or take a few seconds, the world will come to an end far more rapidly than even the worst doomsayer could have imagined. The final meltdown will come not without warnings, but with no means of escape. There will be no survivors. As always, there are those who, as their last cigarette is being lit and the blindfold tightened, will still hope against hope for some kind of reprieve. For a miracle. Not our two lovers. They – like the majority of the Earth’s population – have accepted their fate: the world is going to end.”
Abel Ferrara has been making films for three decades now, almost always working at the margins of the industry, and always courting controversy with his subject matter. Now, in 4:44 Last Day On Earth, Ferrara tackles the end of the world, much like Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, but on a shoestring budget, which is typical for Ferrara, who typically structures his film around one or two major characters, shoots in actual locations quickly, and spews out films that are often uneven, but always visually arresting and deeply ambitious, even if sometimes the individual scenes don’t work.
No matter; the subject matter here is New York City, particularly the Lower East Side, and centers on a woman and a man, played by Shanyn Leigh and Willem Dafoe, who say their goodbyes to the people in their lives on Skype, while traffic flows on in Manhattan, seemingly oblivious to the threat of impending doom. The cause for the world’s demise is ecological, and when the end comes, it’s depicted as a sort of worldwide, lethal vision of Northern Lights, which engulf the planet in an ethereal glow of doom.
Throughout much of the film, Leigh’s character, a painter, seems to be working on a very large abstract canvas on the floor, which in the film’s final moments is revealed to be a large serpent swallowing itself, with no beginning and no end. Anita Pallenberg, as her mother, checks in by Skype to assure her daughter that she has spent her life honorably, doing solid work, and that when the end comes, she shouldn’t be afraid. Some people in the film seek solace in drugs or alcohol; some in prayer; some in partying denial. And some, of course, despite the general consensus that this really is the end of the world, refuse to believe that it’s true.
But a news anchor, seen briefly on a flatscreen television that dominates the loft the pair share, sums it up best when he says that he sees no reason to stay on the air and keep telling the world that time is up; he wants to go home to be with his family when 4:44AM rolls around. In the end, as apocalypse hits full force, the screen fades to white, and Leigh’s character says softly, “now we’re angels.” Imperfect, made in a guerrilla fashion, and shot mostly in a first take is the only take basis, the film is nevertheless deeply felt, and certainly worth the 82 minutes of running time it occupies.
4:44 Last Day On Earth isn’t by any means a masterpiece, but it’s a strangely evocative and transcendent film from a genuine American outlaw, and as such, operates entirely by its own set of rules. And taken on these terms, it is more often than not, successful, and lingers in the mind long after other films have vanished; Ferrara may have no money, but he has imagination and ambition, and he keeps making movies. Just like Leigh’s character in the film, this is an honorable thing to do. Next up is a project with Dafoe on the life of the late filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini; who knows what Ferrara will come up with?