While some spectators may roll their eyes at the thought of another indie film about drug addiction, Josh and Benny Safdie’s Heaven Knows What is a horrifying and remarkable piece of cinema that feels both alarmingly alive and alien given its subject matter. Bold, raw, and severely emotive, the Safdie’s latest is another one of their standard New York tales. Far more emotionally affecting and aesthetically brazen than their first two feature-length films, The Pleasure of Being Robbed (2008) and Daddy Longlegs (2009), Heaven Knows What is one of the few films of its kind that thrives on a new kind of detail and specificity regarding its characters and their milieu.
We’re immediately dropped into the world of junkies and users just barely scraping by and living the daily grind in New York’s Upper West Side. The film’s intense and jarring in media res opening immediately sets the tone as we’re introduced to bottom-drawer druggie lovers Harley (Arielle Holmes) and “black metal dirtbag” Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones) kissing passionately on the concrete, the camera positioned as if it were hugging them. Moments later, after their momentary passion has evaporated, the couple’s manic relationship takes form when in a fit of rage, Ilya tells Harley that if she loves him so much, she ought to kill herself. Willingly obliging, Harley takes out a razor and cuts herself, an act that sends her to the psych ward. This instance, and the couple’s shared on-screen presence, while at times brief, is our conduit into this recognizable yet disturbing setting that we can’t look away from.
In an instance of sheer dumb luck, the Safdies first encountered Holmes while researching for another project, and crafted a film in which she would play herself. (The basis for the film’s screenplay written by Josh Safdie and Ronald Bronstein comes from Holmes’ soon-to-be-published novel, Mad Love in New York City). The result is a ballsy blending of fiction and nonfiction that the film profoundly operates on. The presence of Holmes is felt nearly every frame. With her scant build and pink-stained nose, take one look at her and you can instantly tell she’s in survival mode. Holmes is nothing short of astonishing.
After Ilya eventually disappears and Harley gets released, the film settles into its casual rhythm of depicting the fundamentals of Harley’s days once she starts hanging with another junkie and dealer, Mike (Buddy Duress). Together they plan how they’ll scrounge together cash for their next fix, rummage through stolen mail, get high, and repeat it all the next day. Though their routine is the crux of the middle portion of the film, there’s a hint of unpredictability that moves through these scenes; part of it can be attributed to the ghostly presence of Ilya, who seems spiritually linked to Harley when they’re not on-screen together. Duress and Jones are both captivating in how they affect Harley, but it’s Jones who is the true harbinger of agony throughout.
Continuing on with a genuine appreciation and care for their characters, the Safdies’ continued outpouring of empathy is what makes Heaven Knows What such a transcendent revelation. The music also plays a huge part, as pulsating synth arrangements are used to aid the action and drama in the narrative. With a maturing formal style also aided by cinematographer Sean Price Williams, the film’s imagery and intensity oscillates over a figurative black gate of despair until the void we’ve been staring into naturally darkens a bit more. But these lives must continue to be lived and the Safdies understand this. There resides the hint of light in the never ending abyss. Heaven Knows What is an incendiary film that leaves its mark in ways that feel both exciting and excruciating. It’s a true stunner.
— Ty Landis