I admit that my knowledge of the iconoclastic Welsh poet Dylan Thomas is limited. I know that Bob Dylan invented his surname in tribute to Thomas, and I know the key works and passages that have transcended their author: “Do not go gentle into that good night”; Under Milk Wood’s “starless and bible-black,” which would inspire a King Crimson instrumental and album title.
Mostly, though, I think of the 2019 song “Dylan Thomas,” by Better Oblivion Community Center, a sardonically witty folk shuffle with lyrics about feral cats, the Bates Motel, mad kings playing four-dimensional chess, and the title lyric, which sums up the poet’s cultural legacy: “So sick of being honest/I’ll die like Dylan Thomas/a seizure on the barroom floor.”
This is most certainly the Dylan Thomas that sucks up all of the oxygen in “Last Call,” writer-director Steven Bernstein’s arid and unconventional enactment of the poet’s infamous last days, in which he drank himself to death in New York City’s White Horse Tavern. Roughly half of the film, which opens in theaters today, is set during a daylong bender in 1953, in which Thomas (Rhys Ifans) downs 18 shots of whisky, communes with a poetry-quoting bartender (Rodrigo Santoro) and other barflies and acquaintances who may or not actually exist until, if not seizing on the barroom floor, at least slumping, comatose, until ambulances arrive.
This ignominious decline, shot in flat and shadow-less black-and-white, is intercut with certain remembrances of things past, the fondest of them presented in full, bucolic color in Wales. Other scenes, throwing linearity to the wind, follow supporting characters like Thomas’ physician, Dr. Felton (John Malkovich), his long-suffering biographer (Tony Hale) and his wife (Romola Garai), in brief encounters both prior to and after Thomas’ death.
And we get a few precious scenes of Thomas actually reading his work. In these moments, Ifans is never better, his seductive and stentorian voice echoing off old-timey microphones in dimly lit college auditoriums, as one hand arcs upward in theatrical splendor, waving a cigarette like a conductor’s baton. In these performances, Thomas’ brilliance is palpable.
But they are few and far between. Mostly, he comes across as a thoroughly rotten and nihilistic human being—neglectful of, and unfaithful to, his wife, contemptuous of his peers, dismissive of his idolaters. This is certainly a more preferable approach than hagiography, but it offers a different kind of shallowness than that of the fawning biopic. There is little attempt to capture the roots of the subject’s alcoholism, his despair, his boundless melancholy. It rubs our noses in Thomas’ worst tendencies while offering only a pittance of backstory. For a poet who left such a rich legacy in his words and deeds, this Dylan Thomas remains a verbose cipher. “Last Call” is more about the mystique than the man.
After 106 minutes of long-winded pretention, possibly unintentional anachronisms (at one point, Dr. Felton refers to the Yellow Pages, which were not published until 1966), and a tasteless and self-indulgent post-credit sequence, I know little more about Thomas than Better Oblivion Community Center presented in three lines of a pop song.
“Last Call” is now playing at AMC Aventura, CMX Brickell in Miami, AMC Sunset Place in South Miami.