4:44 Last Day on Earth, Abel Ferrara’s small new film, is filled with gestures of cinema. It takes place in the small hours before the end of the world in an artist’s loft in the Lower East Side of New York, where two lovers, played by Willem Dafoe and Shanyn Leigh, spend their time making love, painting, and emotionally processing their remaining time in this world. Nearly the entire picture is set in this loft space, which gives room to Dafoe to rant and monologue, questioning himself and the world, while Leigh, in her corner, is more contained and expresses herself, mysteriously and silently, by painting.
The two come together to fuck and part to deal with things alone, and despite the attic-lovers push and pull and the end of the world setting, Ferrara is not making a Frank Borzage romance; we do not feel the tactile, transcendent love between these two that can render catastrophe unimportant. Instead, we have the gestures, including but not limited to: (1) a film dedicated to the pale, thin and beautiful body of Leigh, a body Dafoe appreciates more than a soul he loves; (2) a film dedicated to New York City, shot on location in Manhattan and portraying its final hours as calm and everyday: despite a few erratic persons, the off-screen space is stoically normal; (3) and, finally, an ode to cinema. This last is expressed in the apartment and the couple’s connectivity to the outside world as told through a mise-en-scène filled with YouTube videos on iPads, Skype calls to loved ones, and final news reports and footage from around the world—all of which Dafoe and 4:44 itself is riveted to, all screens that possess a communicative, informational, highly emotional and empathetic power, creating a direct analogy between these various screens and that of the cinema (4:44 like several of Ferrara’s most recent films was shot on video).
Apocalyptic but filled with love, supremely doubting—one of the rare moments out of the house and one of the film’s finest scenes is a visit to an apartment where Dafoe's brother asks if he, a recovering junkie, will shoot up before the world ends—the film is circular, the pacing around the apartment and the constant lovemaking and painting a series of cycles of questioning and recovery. 4:44's often erratic acting and typically uncomfortably strange and directly intuitive engagement with its subject may distance one from conventional cinema dramaturgy, but this is replaced with a kind of purity of expression, odes and gestures to human failings and life’s most powerful things on an intimate, urban and highly specific scale.