4:44 Last Day on Earth – New York Film Festival Review

Lower East Side lights go out for the last time in this creepy anti-sci-fi  thriller.

There is some bad news on TV. The world is ending tomorrow. This puts a different color to everything. Inside, outside, live or on the Internet, alone or with somebody, straight or stoned, rich or penniless. There are so many possibilities. It makes living seem like a cakewalk.

For Cisco and Skye (Willem Dafoe and Shanyn Leigh) it is no cakewalk. It the early going it seems as if they are the only couple in the city who believe it is going to happen. As the film progresses, the word gets around and their friends prepare for their last moments on earth, their last moments alive and their last moments with others.

Cisco and Skye are locked into the Internet for the experience, as are many others. Druggies go straight (“I want to go out with my eyes wide open. I want to see the light show”) and straights do drugs. Go figure.

Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Of course, when the sky starts flashing green, the windows blow in and the lights go out, what can one do but accept? It is not like getting over the death of your dog. The end of the world comes very quietly.

Director Able Ferrara had no intention of making this a high tech extravaganza. The flashing green is the northern lights. The real northern lights, no fakery involved. During the press conference after the screening at the 2011 New york Film Festival, the filmmaker was asked how much special effect treatment had to be left off the film to make the, apparently, low budget.

The director replied that budget had nothing to do with it, he would have shot it the same way if he had all the money in the world.

Filming in New York’s Lower East Side probably helped control the budget, although, again, in Ferrara’s words, “In my film making life, the Bowery has gone from a war zone to a college campus.” It costs more to film on a college campus than the Bowery, but the chances of having your equipment stolen are decreased.

The shots are dreadfully dark and delicious. The sum of all the tawdry nihilism of the Lower East Side creeps through the darkness to be with the locals when the lights go out for the last time.

As it turns out, the more money saved in production, the more alarmingly real the fiction gets. About half way through the film the Vietnamese delivery boy is shocked when Cisco hands him an $80 tip for a $15 meal. He stands there dumbfounded as Cisco hands him the money that neither of them will need.

When asked if there is anything else Cisco can do for him, the boy answers (to the amazement of the crowd) “Skype.” Shortly thereafter, actor Trung Nguyan Skype’s up his family in Asia and converses with them urgently in Vietnamese, with no subtitles. It is his real family, which comes off well, actually, at a near zero budget for the producers.

The same trick works with Cisco’s mother Diana. Dafoe Skype’s her somewhere in Europe, has a few last words triggering a lollapalooza of a temper tantrum by Skye (good work Shanyn!) and the scene comes off OK. As Ferrara sums it up, “a payday for Anita and she didn’t have to leave her apartment. No flying, staying in hotels or anything…” Can’t argue with that!

In the end it is not clear if there is acceptance or not. Skye paints a pretty good serpent and changes clothes four times, more times than a snake sheds its skin in a year. When asked if this was the point, the director, without missing a beat, replies, “That’s pretty good, I should use that.” Then, “Hey, it’s your last day on earth, you’re gonna get dressed up for it!” OK, maybe it was subliminal.

The director’s first fiction feature to be filmed entirely in the city in over a decade, “Last Day on Earth” is another corker of a performance by Dafoe, the gold standard of over the top.

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Directed and Written by: Abel Ferrara
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Natasha Lyonne and Paul Hipp 
Release Date: NYFF—No Planned Release
MPAA: Not Rated
Running Time: 85 Minutes
Country: USA
Language: English
Color: Color