Those familiar with Dylan Thomas would probably agree that the man was an enigma. Both in life and in his untimely demise, Thomas was a hard book to read. Look no further than the numerous biographies, many of which give very different accounts of the Welsh writer and especially of his death on November 9, 1953 in New York City. He was a brilliant but self-destructive wordsmith who fully embraced the ‘doomed poet‘ persona. The new film “Last Call” looks at him through that lens but with some added layers of complexity.
Steven Bernstein writes, directs, and co-produces this intriguing bio-drama that is all about digging into Thomas’ troubled psyche during his last day prior to his death at age 39. It’s said that late that evening Thomas returned to the Chelsea Hotel in New York and declared “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies. I think that’s the record!” Despite eyewitness claims to the contrary, Bernstein’s film spends a lot of time imagining those hours in the White Horse Tavern leading up to his 18th and final drink as the poet slips further down the rabbit hole of depression and intoxication.
Bernstein doesn’t get caught up sharing the full timeline of Thomas’ life. Instead he breaks up the bar scenes with a batch of flashbacks, flash-forwards, and several alcohol induced fantasies. The leaps back in time provide glimpses of his stormy marriage to Caitlin Thomas (Romola Garai) who he left in England to care for their three kids while he does readings across America. She writes letters that seemingly go unanswered, pleading for him to send back money to help clothe and feed their children. Meanwhile Thomas (played by a mesmerizing Rhys Ifans) wrestles with guilt and his true feelings for his wife.
Bernstein brings several other characters in who offer outside perspective on Thomas’ hard living. John Malkovich plays Dr. Felton who tries to warn Thomas about his out-of-control boozing. Tony Hale plays John Brinnan, a fellow writer and Thomas’ frustrated handler while he’s in New York. Zosia Mamet plays Penny who represents the gaze of adoring coeds Thomas would encounter during nearly every university stop. And Rodrigo Santoro plays Carlos the bartender, an enabler at first but perhaps the only person who truly understands Thomas.
The story arcs for all of the supporting characters revolve around Thomas, highlighting his dominating personality. Yet despite his success and unquenched bravado, there is an abject sadness that even a haze of alcohol can’t conceal. Ifans brilliantly captures both sides of the man through countless self-gratifying monologues that get more dour as the story moves forward.
Several of Bernstein’s style choices are oddly implemented but work fairly well – the fractured timeline, the strategic cuts between black-and-white and color, the drunken hallucinations that almost feel plucked from another film. It amounts to a strangely unconventional yet satisfying account that disregards the tendencies of most current day big screen biographies.
It will be interesting to watch the reactions to “Last Call”. The movie forces you to get in tune with Thomas’ special brand of verbose communication which mainly consists of eloquent declamations full of self-centered grandeur. Admittedly it can be exhausting watching Thomas suck the air out of every scene. Yet I also found it fascinating in a grim, tragic sense and Ifans owns every scene much like his character owns every room he enters. It’s cemented by rock-solid supporting performances and a director willing to take risks even if they don’t always work the way he hoped. “Last Call” is now showing in select theaters.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS