Having helmed several bleak, violent adventures in misanthropy, including The Driller Killer (1979) and Bad Lieutenant (1993), writer-director Abel Ferrara seems like a shoo-in to deliver a memorable apocalyptic thriller. And while his most recent film, 4:44 Last Day on Earth, is certainly a memorable end of days story, it keeps far away from thriller territory in following Cisco (Willem Defoe) and his younger lover Skye (Shanyn Leigh) as they await humanity’s imminent demise. Ferrara’s deliberately small focus proves more intense than a Hollywood-style, fire-and-brimstone Armageddon.
Most of the film takes place in the couple’s Manhattan apartment. Skye labors over a large canvas in a bid to distract herself from the crisis at hand—or maybe she just doesn’t see any reason why she shouldn’t do what she would do any other day. Cisco tries to contact old friends on Skype and watches television, abandoning any concerns about sitting too close to the screen (there isn’t time to incur damage to his eyes). Notably, Skype becomes an essential presence in the apartment, highlighting the couple’s isolation while serving as the only connection to their loved ones. Ferrara brings this thematic link between technology and human relationships to its peak during a scene in which a Vietnamese delivery boy, whose name Cisco finally asks after having seen him “thousands of times,” uses Cisco’s laptop to Skype with his family. Although Cisco and Skye can’t understand his language, they watch intently, vicariously tapping into the conversation’s emotional weight. This is especially true for the spiritually inclined Skye, who tearfully thanks the boy and tells him she’s happy to have known him.
The film’s characters concern themselves with revisiting, and in some cases reigniting, relationships they may have allowed to go stale under better circumstances. Early on, during a lengthy sex scene, Ferrara captures the couple’s sighs, moans and snatches of whispered, affectionate conversation with pristine clarity. The camera is unhurried as it lingers over their nude bodies, rendered sharply in close-ups. This could be the last time these people will ever make love, and Ferrara is interested in the enormity of that realization on a personal level. The film contains many such moments of closeness, whether broadcast from the world outside, as with the newscaster who signs off for the last time in a heartfelt address, or focused inward, like the nightmarish vision Cisco has while meditating.
Although it runs a slight eighty-two minutes, 4:44 Last Day on Earth is no doubt an ambitious work, as Ferrara attempts to filter the human experience through the dark lens of Earth’s final hours. Fortunately, he achieves a fascinating end result, a deeply expressive film smartly assembled as a collection of moments rather than a plot-driven narrative. The dramas specific to Cisco’s life, which continue to plague him even as they rapidly approach non-existence, are interspersed with more ordinary, everyday instances, and Ferrara treats both with equal severity, as the apocalyptic context allows him to question what exactly defines a human life.