In Abel Ferrara’s universe, even minor conflicts have a way of sounding like the end of the world. So despite the fact that, Body Snatchers remake notwithstanding, science fiction has never been his wheelhouse, it’s not surprising that he’s finally worked his way around to a bona fide apocalypse. Although news reports pinpoint environmental degradation as the culprit, the mechanics of the pending cataclysm don’t interest Ferrera so much as the emotional stakes: How do people act when there’s no future left?
For bohemian couple Willem Dafoe and Shanyn Leigh, the answer is an intensified take on business as usual. She keeps to her painting, pushing paint around a massive black canvas on the floor of their loft; he makes Skype calls to his ex-wife and daughter. Though the world will end before his 5 o’clock shadow kicks in, he shaves anyway. When she asks why, he says, “For you.” During his sole outing, Dafoe visits friends who offer him a chance to get high, but the recovering addict turns them down. He’d rather face the end with eyes unclouded by drugs, even if there’s nothing left for which to stay sober.
That 4:44 is long on verbal confrontation and short on rioting in the streets is doubtless a function of the film’s limited budget, but the cloistered focus on the couple’s living space also lends their final hours an intimate intensity. Rather than cross one final item off their to-do lists, they’re living as they have, making love, arguing, and reconciling, and creating art. Leigh is Ferrara’s girlfriend of many years, and though Dafoe shares none of his director’s shambling, burned-out affect, it’s clear that the movie’s fiction is a porous one, allowing the onscreen and offscreen relationships to bleed into each other.
At times, 4:44 is so chaotic it’s difficult to endure: Ferrara fills the couple’s living space with screens large and small, blaring overlapping monologues that range from the Dalai Lama’s profundities to a kind of spiritual infomercial. The improvised dialogue takes hairpin turns, some less fruitful than others, holding onto just enough traces of structure to sustain the film’s brief length. The end of the world would seem to be the ultimate plot twist, but for Ferrara it’s just another excuse to push people to extremes.