Movie Review: 4:44 LAST DAY ON EARTH
I wonder if there is anyone who does not take pleasure in watching Willem Dafoe act. He commands attention whenever he’s on the screen. He may just be leafing through a notepad, still: his is an imposing presence. I have come to expect him to do great things; his roles over the years (unforgettable Bobby Peru, Sgt. Elias, Jesus, Paul Smecker or John LeTour) have practically made him an institution.
So, when I felt uncomfortable watching him interact with his co-star (Shanyn Leigh) in the bathroom over illicit drug use, I knew better than to pin the donkey tail on him.
Allow me qualify my statements. I am not a vitriolic brat, who lacks any happiness in their life and so seeks to inflict injury upon others. I was very much looking forward to seeing 4:44 Last Day on Earth. But, I left the theatre disappointed. So, if there is any bitterness, it stems from shattered expectations.
If the film were satiric, I could sing its praises. Unfortunately, the intention is for us to take it at face value. If this were an elaborate visually stunning joke at the expense of privileged miserable hipster wannabe artists, who even under the imminent threat of destruction fail to create a meaningful human bond, I would be applauding. I would not have to worry about the unmemorable dialogue, if it were devised to unmask the emptiness in their lives.
Sadly, the scene where Leigh’s Skye patronizingly embraces the delivery boy, while uttering bromides to make herself feel better (about herself), is quite sincerely meant to display the character’s level of enlightenment. In reality, it is a somewhat shameful display of what the upper class understands under compassion and charity. It is the equivalent of the Christian side hug. So is the large tip Cisco (Dafoe) gives. We are expected to believe that TV commentators abandon their posts to be with their families, yet delivery boys will keep running errands, quietly and obediently living out their purpose of serving the rich until their bodies disintegrate.
I don’t think that the hostility towards the working poor was intended; it is simply a blasé, condescending idea of what generosity and brotherly love means. I also have a bit of trouble connecting with characters with names like Cisco and Skye. I am not sure these are people I would want to meet. Again: if these monikers are used without a shred of irony, they are bit difficult to digest. Or, if you are indeed creating types, if you are hell-bent on constructing a mythology, with corresponding monumental nomenclature for your characters, then you better make sure they are in fact larger than life.
I am afraid, Abel Ferrara (the writer & director) only made sure of this in a very literal sense, providing us with extreme close-ups of their bodies. The sex scene near the film’s opening is quite well mannered, artfully orchestrated, but it fails to establish intimacy between Skye and Cisco. No matter how great the camerawork, how quiet the moment, how few and gentle the sighs, it feels like we are watching an established routine. It seems like a well-rehearsed couple going about their vanilla business: I touch you there, you touch me there, let’s rub our parts a little, and we are ready to go, how American of us! We know what goes where, we’ve read the manual.
Perhaps if there was more emphasis on the fact that we are watching an aging man, and the dialogue would complement the struggle that is underlying aging itself, the close-ups and the film itself could have gained much more poignancy. The sadness of the inevitable demise is after all a universal topic that we all have to face. Whether a human life ends in a man-made cataclysm or as a result of a natural process, our existence is defined by the awareness of that mortality.
Ferrara had an opportunity to make it personal, to articulate what this really means to him, to individualize the experience. Yet, he chose to dilute it with clichés, pondering whether money was the root of all evil. Cisco has an angry outburst over the annual rent increase. Skye’s mother gets upset about non-smoking laws. Small-mindedly they think about things they found inconvenient, they felt were an imposition on them, without any real understanding of the world around them. Ultimately all concerns displayed are concerns of generally well-off people who are too bored to see the real problem is them. It’s always “those fuckers,” and “those responsible” for the disaster.
So, what is this talk about the end of the world? I should have realized gimmicky is the code word, when I first saw the film title. The abundance of fours should have tipped me off. Unlucky number in China and Japan, its pronunciation is identical with sounding out a kanji for death. It appears to have little more significance. The issue of why the doom is impending is never sufficiently explored. Modern audiences are too sophisticated to accept a flimsy explanation. It is rather distracting, if one cannot just freely suspend skepticism and stop analyzing why something is happening. Making things believable is the crux of cinema. As a movie viewer, even when one is watching a documentary, they are always asked to suspend their present reality and follow along on a trip with the moviemaker. Here, even the loft seemed abstract, even the city seemed unreal. It felt like a theatre stage.
Unreal are Skye’s shrieks. Leigh is surprisingly absent for someone who does a decent amount of yelling in the film. (The character perhaps requires it. After all, Omar Sharif was famously instructed by David Lean not to act, but just to be present: a canvas for the viewer, for the other actors, an impassive figure, for his role as Doctor Zhivago.) She seeks refuge from the impending doom in meditation and work, all very reasonable endeavors, wise one could say. If acceptance and transcendence are the message, one shouldn’t shoot the messenger.
It is all neatly stacked: a little rebellion against the inevitable, a pinch of interaction with old friends, a little bit of regret, a small lover’s quarrel, just a taste of reconciliation, a tad of philosophy, a little bit of psychedelic imagery. There is no existential conflict, only pettiness that never ends. Oh, wait, it does. I am just not sure I meant was to leave the theatre relieved, that end it did.
If the goal was to make people stop and think about the things we might lose, things we will all lose; if the goal was to force us to inquire what it means to live meaningfully; Ferrara only shows some uninspired routines.
Lust for more, new, richer experiences; desire for intense sensory perception; the joy derived from being of this world, just one more dish, one more ocean view; this hunger that can never be fully satisfied, only appreciated as a value itself; the false hope that it will never end – all of this was missing from 4:44 Last Day on Earth. Stubbornly fighting the inevitable entropy is one of the finer human qualities. Yet here, no character was truly passionate about their life. Even the protagonists’ choice to remain confined in their condo was like their ultimate act: lying down to die.