4:44 Last Day on Earth is both about the end of the world and not really about it. In his own words, writer/director Abel Ferrara had described the film as a “hanging out with the girlfriend” movie. That’s accurate. Willem Dafoe and Shanyn Leigh basically await the inevitability of death from their Lower East Side loft.
There’s not the usual panic that you’d expect from a film about the end of all things. The mayhem happens on television footage rather than in NYC proper, where a certain everyday quality pervades. A limited budget can prevent the end of the world apparently, or at least a conventional end of the world. You can consider this hang-out feel a major flaw of the film since it doesn’t really align with a traditional sense of what Armageddon will be like. I wouldn’t necessarily blame you — there’s a certain expectation of grandiosity when it comes to the end of the world. It is, of course, the end of the world.
But this sort of lo-fi apocalypse is what made 4:44 stand out for me. It’s a no-budget cousin to Lars von Trier’s Melancholia and Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse. And yet, the film is its own animal entirely. If I could imitate Abel Ferrara’s Bronx delivery to sum up the film, I’d say, “So, yeah, like it’s the end of the world, but life goes on, you know what I mean?”
4:44 Last Day on Earth
Director: Abel Ferrara
Release Date: March 23rd (limited and VOD)
The idea for 4:44 Last Day on Earth began as a short on global warming. Al Gore’s representatives had approached Ferrara a few years ago to make it, but the project never came to fruition. The set-up from the short remains intact in this feature-length version: a couple waits for the end of the world caused by global warming.
NY1’s own Pat Kiernan appears in the film and lays out the situation like so (I’m paraphrasing): “Al Gore was right. The ozone layer is completely depleted, and at 4:44 AM eastern standard time, all life on planet earth will cease.” (The “Al Gore was right” line is a direct quote from the movie.) Getting bogged down in the science of the conceit isn’t the point. Ferrara’s using this large-scale device to try to tell a small-scale story. Just think of it as the plague of the first-borns but for all born-things, and it’s caused by global warming.
At the center of the end of the world is a writer named Cisco (Dafoe) and his younger girlfriend Skye (Leigh). With about 12-14 hours left to live, one of the first things they do in the movie is exactly what you’d be doing on your last day on earth: f**king.
Talking about what you’d do if you had one day left to live is a great conversation starter. We always picture sex, mayhem, and anarchy all over the world. Given Ferrara’s previous films, you’d expect a lot of that — he’s the guy who did Driller Killer, King of New York, and Bad Lieutenant, after all. Yet there’s something unexpectedly mellow about 4:44 Last Day on Earth. It goes with Ferrara’s oddly mellow and even lucid attitude these days. I caught him at a screening recently and when someone asked him about Bad Lieutenant, he joked, “Which one? The first one or the one where I dressed up like Herzog?”
If most end of the world movies are filmed with a sort of Judeo-Christian worldview or a nihilistic worldview, 4:44 Last Day on Earth is one with a Buddhist worldview. There’s a general sense of the acceptance of death, and not too much panic about it. On one side of the loft, the TV is tuned to the news for background noise; on the other, there’s an iPad playing a video of Geshe Michael Roach as he explains different levels of consciousness. Skye puts most of her energy into a painting which slowly gets created over the course of the film. It functions as one of those ephemeral sand mandalas that Buddhist monks make to express the fleeting nature of physical life.
So instead of acts of violence, we get sudden emotional anguish from Cisco and Skye as they come to terms with death. Cisco seems more afraid of dying than Skye. He wanders his side of the loft making calls, Skyping people he cares about, and stepping out onto the roof in an agitated state. Skye’s poise is thrown briefly as Cisco tries to contact his daughter from a previous relationship. I think Leigh’s youth helps sell her outburst — first it comes across as a tantrum, but then it’s really about a younger person wondering whether or not she’s led a worthwhile life, as short as it is.
Limited by the budget, Ferrara attempts to give the film a larger scope by using bits of found footage. Among these grabs of video are images from the Arab Spring, various candlelight vigils, a large mass at the Vatican, and even one odd clip from years back in which a baby lays prone and stares at a king cobra (thankfully defanged). These images show up on the television and even as part of Cisco’s visions while he meditates with Skye.
The fact that people are meditating on the last day on Earth or still walking the streets is part of that everyday quality I mentioned earlier. It’ll be off-putting to many audience members, but I think the absurdity of it all is really funny and even poignant in a quiet kind of way. On the last day on earth, people just do their usual routines. Part of it may be denial, or part of it may be an expression of the film’s worldview: we’ve pretty much accepted that we’re going to die, so let’s just live life like we normally would.
People say their goodbyes, they have their parties, and they try to connect with whoever they can. They also hail cabs, chill out in front of the local bodega, and order take-out. But it’s in those mundane acts that a certain sense of human connection becomes apparent. Everyone is alone doing their own thing, but it has extra weight on the last day on earth. Strangers doing everyday things seems both funny and sad because there’s that understanding that tomorrow no one will be doing anything; nothing will be the new everyday.
As he tries to come to terms with his emotions, Cisco wanders the Lower East Side to reconnect briefly with familiar haunts. There’s not much time left, and there’s a sad aimlessness about Cisco’s ramblings. Dafoe admirably conveys this sense of being lost and overwhelmed in something like a fog. You sort of wonder why he isn’t more urgent, but then again, maybe when we’re confronted with something so tremendous, the only thing we can do is make like that UK poster from WWII: keep calm and carry on.
I was still living on the west coast when 9/11 happened, but I’ve made a lot of friends who were NYU students during the attacks. (There’s a spectre of 9/11 hanging over 4:44. Pat Kiernan, who I mentioned earlier, said he channeled his 9/11 telecast for his brief part in the film.) Many of them formed these lasting relationships in the aftermath because that’s what tragedy can do: a sudden reminder of our vulnerability and loneliness makes us appreciate that we have people around us and that we don’t have to be so alone.
It was either the night of the 11th or the night of the 12th that a group of them got together and headed out to get some Chinese food. They sat in the restaurant and talked, and laughed. They said some people in the restaurant seemed angry that anyone could laugh at a time like that. I can see that, but I wonder what else these friends of mine could have done? This was a little bit of catharsis, and just what they needed to remind themselves that they were fortunate and happy to be alive. Sometimes all you can do is take time to celebrate life with the people you love, even if it is the end of the world.