As the legend (most probably apocryphal) goes, Dylan Thomas’ final words before collapsing in the Chelsea Hotel were, “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies. I think that’s the record.” People who were actually there in the White Horse Tavern that day dispute this, but those mythical 18 whiskeys are the organizing principle of Steven Bernstein’s “Last Call,” with Rhys Ifans as the Welsh poet drinking his way into delirium, surrounded by a hooting crowd of admirers and concerned “friends.” This is well-trod ground (most recently, in 2014’s “Set Fire to the Stars“), perhaps because there’s something garish and hypnotic about Thomas’ death and those final words, in all their sickly bravado. “Last Call,” also written by Bernstein, takes the legend as truth, and expands on it, making Thomas’ march towards that 18th drink a deliberate piece of performance art. “Last Call”‘s original title was “Dominion,” after one of Thomas’ most famous poems, “And death shall have no dominion” (quoting St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans). “Dominion” is a far better title than the generic “Last Call,” but the problems here go beyond the title. Watching a man drink himself to death, seemingly on purpose, is a pretty tough whiskey to swallow, even if he is articulate and dramatic, even if he is a famous poet, and even if he is played with a shamanistic power by Rhys Ifans.
Dylan Thomas was always more shaman than poet, and his poetry readings were major events. He didn’t just have admirers. He had fans. He wasn’t just a well-known poet. He was a “star.” Like Anne Sexton was a star, like Edna St. Vincent Millay was a star: these poets crafted public personae, like movie stars do, and they wove spells over their audiences, in the same way Jim Morrison did, or Mick Jagger did. By the time period covered in “Last Call,” Thomas already felt the emptiness of much of what he was doing. He knew he was a ham. He felt there was something fraudulent in how things were going. He admitted it himself once: “I’m a freak user of words, not a poet.” In his mind, the American reading tours were cynical cash grabs, and he drank up all the profits anyway, leaving his wife and children at home in Wales, destitute. It was during one of these tours that Thomas stopped off in New York, to attend early rehearsals for a production of his verse play Under Milk Wood. He was already extremely unwell.
“Last Call” jumps around in time, and Bernstein switches up the styles, moving from desaturated color to black-and-white, bringing in fuzzy hallucinations and using rear-projection for some of the New York scenes. There’s a lot of cross-cutting between scenes and locations and times, moving from Thomas giving readings at different colleges, back to Wales, where his wife Caitlin (Romola Garai) writes increasingly furious letters, begging for money. Meanwhile, Thomas’ “handler” and eventual biographer John Malcolm Brinnin (Tony Hale) and Thomas’ cynical doctor Dr. Fenton (John Malkovich, who also produced), commiserate over what to do with their increasingly incapacitated client. Zosia Mamet plays Penelope, a young Vassar student, who’s booked Thomas to come and speak at her college (incurring the wrath of the administration, who consider Thomas a dangerous libertine. They’re not entirely wrong). Penelope loves Thomas with the passion of a fangirl, declaring to a friend, “I love everything about him. I’d have his child if he asked me to.” Her friend says, “You are joking.” She says, “Which part.”