Many filmmakers attempt to tell stories set in New York City that fit the setting, but sibling directors Joshua and Benny Safdie thrive on it. Their first two features, “The Pleasure of Being Robbed” and “Daddy Longlegs” — along with several notable short films — conjure a weird, off-kilter comedic sensibility from the poetic dimensions of urban grime.
But each of their meandering, bizarre portraits of obsessive New Yorkers points to darker, subterranean elements, which dominate their stunning new drama “Heaven Knows What.” A bold attempt to explore drug addiction through behavior, the brothers’ third narrative effort ranks as their most complex.
A Major Drug Movie
Co-written by Joshua Safdie and the brothers’ “Daddy Longlegs” star Ronald Bronstein, “Heaven Knows What” presents a raw look at young heroin junkies in love. Drawing from Arielle Holmes’ yet-to-be-published tome “Mad Love in New York City” — and featuring Holmes in a distinctive lead role — the story is steeped in the desperation of its aimless stars.
Amplifying their reckless desire to shoot up at every occasion, “Heaven Knows What” might be the best of its type since “Requiem for a Dream,” though with its macabre focus on a wild-eyed, drug-addicted couple, it has more in common with “Panic in Needle Park.” But it has a greater urgency than most movies on the topic by casting real-life addicts and street characters in situations loosely based on their own lives. Where some versions of this story might explore the prospects of a better tomorrow, “Heaven Knows What” remains tethered to the problems of the present with gripping focus.
The petite Holmes plays Harley, though in essence she’s playing herself: The Safdies discovered her during her days as a 19-year-old manic-depressive heroin addicts, convinced her to write a narrative based on her life, and used it as the backbone for their movie. Such extreme authenticity is visible in every scene.
Harley’s romance with the raggedy Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones) is already on the rocks as the movie begins, when the tearful young woman finds her estranged lover lounging in the library and attempts to engage him, leading to a series of physical altercations. Their ensuing argument spills out to the streets and culminates in a horrific suicide attempt — one incident in the movie that really happened — rendered in shocking terms that proves just how far this movie will go to render its characters’ hopeless state in palpable terms.
And there’s much more of where that came from, as Ilya and Harley continue to orbit each other’s paths in a ramshackle community of addicts — sleeping on floors and streets, doing anything they can to survive another day. With Ilya regularly out of the picture, Harley turns to other supportive male figures, predominantly the frail Mike (Buddy Duress), who mistakenly assumes she has feelings for him. The miscommunication builds to a series of confrontations, but fewer resolutions. Taking cues from the fiery performances, “Heaven Knows What” conveys the paradox of their lives: They possess the attitude to act out and behave as they please on the margins of society, yet can’t escape the crippling habits keeping them there.
A Cinematic Struggle
Despite its grim proceedings, however, “Heaven Knows What” never becomes an exploitive horror show. Aided by regular Safdie collaborator Sean Price Williams’ roaming camerawork (the cinematographer also recently shot “Listen Up Phillip”), the movie oscillates between broad images that captures its protagonists against the bustle of city life and tender closeups highlighting their despair.
An early virtuoso sequence roams the hallways of Bellevue hospital, where Harley has been detained, and captures another violent outburst — this time seen without any audible dialogue. Instead, the lively synth score by Isao Tomita (based on numerous Debussy compositions) takes prominence and remains in play for much of the running time, drawing out the eerie dislocation at the root of the drama.
As with co-writer Bronstein’s own unsettling directing effort “Frownland,” the Safdies magnify the plight of ineloquent survivors, so it’s often less important what they say than the rambling tone with which they say it. Notwithstanding the narrative’s frantic edge, “Heaven Knows What” is filled with artful moments. Late at night, as Harley and her friends shoot up in the park, a clumsy makeout session between two dopers culminates with the gradual presence of a shadowy figure slowly emerging into frame — a reminder of the ever-present danger in their lives. The suspense never lets up, nor does it cease to yield more surprises, all the way through the distressing climax.
While “Heaven Knows What” focuses on pitiable behavior, it avoids condescending to its subjects. From start to finish, the story remains exclusively trapped in their world. There are no fully defined sober characters to be found. But Holmes’ lively performance transcends the corrosive environment so that the movie actually makes it possible to get swept up in her regular quests to get high. The Safdies turn her conundrum into a twisted adventure of begging for change and sneaking booze and needles wherever she can.
Harley’s predicament would register as slapstick if it weren’t so intrinsically downbeat. At one point, Harley and one of her compatriots press a heap of stolen mail against subway vents to avoid losing them in the wind of a passing train. It’s a distinctly Safdian moment: awkwardly physical, unexpected, and very New York. Despite the dour context, it captures these near-death figures as they experience active lives.
Jones doesn’t carry the movie with nearly as many scenes as the movie’s female lead, but dominates the few startling moments in which Ilya acts out. While he’s the closest thing to a name actor in the Safdies’ career to date, this is anything but a traditional role. Defined by a demonic gaze and long, raggedy hair, Ilya — an apparent riff on Holmes’ actual addict boyfriend — is a pale-skinned monstrosity always on the verge of another outburst. Though he’s described to Harley by one concerned drifter as “a black metal dirtbomb,” she’s drawn to his grimy attributes, despite — or maybe because of — the accompanying destructive tendencies.
Regardless of the remarkable attention to behavior that drives “Heaven Knows What” forward, the movie never provides sufficient backstory for Ilya and Harley, missing the opportunity to give the tragedy of their lifestyle the context it deserves. Nevertheless, the vague nature of their situation feeds into movie’s focus on what it means to lose control.
Evading the pratfalls of a melodramatic conclusion, “Heaven Knows What” winds down with a sea of meaningless junkie chatter meant to suggest a cycle of dependency with no simple cure. But the movie arrives at a point of clarity with its final spoken words: “I don’t give a fuck about anything anymore,” one character says, assessing a problem that lies beyond the literal threat of the needle and instead singles out the motivation for its recurrence in their sad lives.
“Heaven Knows What” premiered this week at the Venice Film Festival. It next plays festivals in Toronto and New York. It does not currently have U.S. distribution.