Film Review: 4:44 Last Day on Earth

The ever-original Abel Ferrara offers a stunningly believable final day among New Yorkers waiting, like the rest of the world, for the final hour of planet Earth.

"Al Gore was right," someone says ruefully in writer-director Abel Ferrara's quietly tragic vision of the end of the world. Some unspecified global-warming tipping point has tipped and, as real-life New York newscaster Pat Kiernan reports with stoic professionalism, a "sudden and global" environmental apocalypse will commence at 4:44 a.m., according to incontrovertible scientific calculation that, clearly, the world has had many months to accept and absorb. Now the end is imminent, and humans, in the face of something too big to grasp and with nothing anyone can do, try to spend their final hours meaningfully.

For some, that's meant pilgrimages to religious sites. For others, pointless looting. For yet others, communal ceremonies—all of this coming through on TV sets and computer screens filled with no other news. But for most people in this particular vision of the end, it means normal life, normal routine—that very normalcy a sort of mental and emotional anchor against a final day of nothing but terror, despair and agony.

In the scruffy Manhattan loft apartment of actor Cisco (Willem Dafoe) and his younger artist girlfriend Skye (Shanyn Leigh, Ferrara's real-life girlfriend, who has appeared in several of his films), the end comes with both a bang and a whimper, as the couple have sex, fight, make final Skype calls to her mother (Anita Pallenberg), his parents (Dafoe's real-life parents William and Muriel Sprissler Dafoe), his ex (Deirdra McDowell) and his daughter (Triana Jackson), and ultimately just hold each other. At one point an immigrant delivery guy (Trung Nguyen) brings Chinese food—keeping routine for solace, keeping his mind occupied to avoid going insane with fear, hoping against hope that maybe everyone's wrong about this—and makes his own final Skype call to his family.

Not surprisingly, the enormity of this extinction event gets to Cisco, who paces on a rooftop, muttering to himself and screaming at neighbors who want to do something with the body of a man who's committed suicide, turning it into an issue of respecting the man's final choice since it's not like there's much they can do about it anyway. Then, after a fight with Skye, Cisco visits his friendly neighborhood coke dealer (José Solano), who's sitting around with two mutual friends (Natasha Lyonne and Paul Hipp) with whom Cisco debates whether to fall off the wagon: Should he say "Screw it" and indulge since he'll be dead in a few hours, or decline and go to his end with the comfort of having been strong enough to face his addiction and hopefully whatever else happens?

Less slick than some of Ferrara's other doom-laden New York visions like Bad Lieutenant (1992) and King of New York (1990), but with the gritty melancholia of films like Ms. 45 (1981) and The Addiction (1995), 4:44 Last Day on Earth carries a fly-on-the-wall verisimilitude that is both bracingly raw and real and occasionally uncomfortable—an extended lovemaking sequence that bares Dafoe down to his pubic hair gets a little tedious, especially appearing so soon in the movie before we've a chance to know the characters. But the dialogue, which feels like a mixture of both script and improvisation, feels natural throughout. In a nice surprise, given how lame most TV and movie news anchors sound, Kiernan, of the local-news channel New York 1, offers onscreen reports that sound like a broadcast journalist; perhaps he himself actually wrote them. His final signoff is dignified and humane without becoming sentimental or overwrought in the least.

That's not a bad description for the film overall, which doesn't gut-punch with the devastating, slow-death-by-hunger-and-radiation-poisoning horror of Lynne Littman’s Testament (1983), about nuclear apocalypse as experienced in a San Francisco suburb outside a blast radius. The emotional distance we feel with 4:44 echoes that of the characters, who, simply to keep their sanity, face the inevitable with the blinders of faint hope that maybe the scientists were all wrong and the sun will come up as usual tomorrow. It's a sobering thought that we in real life may be doing the same thing with scientists' warnings of the melting icecaps, the rising average temperature of Earth, and everything else global climate change entails.

“Boardwalk Empire” actress Paz de la Huerta, who is prominently billed, appears in a single silent scene as a woman on a street corner, screaming.