Junkies scream at each other incoherently on sidewalks and push erratically through crowds, pursuing, with glazed eyes and matted hair, dramas that only they can see. They shoot up in parks and fast food restaurant restrooms, shoplift, and con each other into and out of their stashes. As a taxi driver once yelled at me when I yelped at a rat the size of a border collie crossing Houston, “Welcome to New York!” But Josh and Benny Safdie’s harsh, unromanticized yet lyrical “Heaven Knows What,” which we caught up with at the Tokyo International Film Festival, is a work of minor revelation in that it doesn’t feel like it comes from the other side of the fence. While it maintains an objective remove from the proceedings, stylistically hinting at, but thankfully never trying to capture the sensation of an addict’s highs and lows, it doesn’t condescend or patronize or demonize. Instead it locates its perspective firmly within this usually invisible community and looks out at the rest of the world from there. So in a neat reversal of the way middle class privilege tends to work, suddenly it’s the “normal” people, the gainfully employed, the scrupulously respectable, the persons-of-fixed-abode, who might as well be cloaked in invisibility. They are undifferentiated white noise, packing pellets for the real life that exists between these usually marginalized protagonists.
The film came about when the Safdie brothers, researching a different project as their potential next narrative feature after the well-received “Daddy Long Legs,” came across Arielle Holmes, at the time a functioning heroin addict who soon after they met attempted suicide and was confined to Bellevue Hospital, an incident that forms the opening sequence of a film that weaves together elements of Holmes’ real-life experiences with fictional encounters and characters. They all, however, even Caleb Landry Jones’ Ilya (Jones is nominally the film’s biggest star and certainly the biggest ”name” the Safdies have worked with to date) orbit around Holmes herself. The inspiration for the story also takes the lead role and makes riveting, totally authentic-feeling work of it. Self-destructive, with the inherent selfishness of the addict, Holmes can also at times seem tremulously beautiful and so very, very young, but she never shies away from embodying her character’s ugliness too—her casual cruelty, her shrill argumentativeness, her maddening self-involvement and delusions of the grand tragedy of her love affair with Ilya. That willful self-deception is beautifully summed up by a single sequence in which Harley, in rare voiceover narration, sighs about the worlds Ilya opened up for her, and about how there was “an elegance” to him, while the pictures tell the story of two lank-haired dullards stealing bottles of 5-Hour Energy from drugstores to fence to kiosk vendors.
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Harley (Holmes) is released from Bellevue—the gripping unbroken opening credits shot weaves in and out of the psych ward as she takes her Methodone and gets into a scrap with another patient—with fourteen stitches on her slashed wrist. Ostensibly trying to avoid Ilya (Jones), the fellow addict with whom she has a tempestuous love affair, she falls in with drug dealer Mike (Buddy Duress) instead. A self-aggrandizing motormouth, he nonetheless, within this warped microcosmic world, genuinely seems to care for Harley. The days pass in a cumulative hazy blur of scores, drunkenness, begging sessions, and long periods shooting the shit in fast food joints, before a potential overdose sees Harley rush back to Ilya’s side and the two embark on an abortive trip to Florida.
As that summation might suggest, the film’s impressionist vibe and excellent woozy, washed-out photography (indie DP-du-jour Sean Price Williams also shot “Listen Up Philip”) are mandated by a loose, amorphous structure that may frustrate those looking for a more classically shaped story. But this is an evocation of aimless, yet moment-to-moment urgent existences, and so it feels entirely appropriate that it is itself moment-to-moment gripping but lacking in simple overarching narrative arcs.
Across its slender 95-minute run time, the film doesn’t so much build momentum as pulsate alternately with periods of high drama and soporific lulls, yet it all coheres, due in large part to some truly astonishing music cues. Taken together, they comprise one of the most extraordinary soundtracks of the year, used in bold, often brilliantly overwhelming fashion. Indeed, if the film gave us nothing other than a stellar introduction to the astonishing Debussy reworkings of Japanese electronica composer Isao Tomita (you better believe he is all up in my Spotify right this second), that would have been a great deal.
But of course it’s a lot more than that. “Heaven Knows What” (perhaps only really let down by its generic and forgettable title) is part of the tradition of the drug movie, and the Safdies have acknowledged the influence of such films as “Panic in Needle Park,” “Naked,” and “Kids” in its making. But it is also entirely its own thing: a unique melding of social issues drama, autobiography, arthouse experiment and music video, marked out by totally committed performances (Jones and Holmes will get the press but Duress is also extremely impressive as Mike). Finally, it is an unusually insightful New York City film, with these homeless, drifting people making the very streets their living rooms, and acting out the most intimate of moments in overlit ATM foyers and public parks.
Occasionally a strident, difficult watch, “Heaven Knows What” is nonetheless a truthful, specific film that might not change the world, or even want to; that is not its crusade. But for a little more than an hour and a half it performs nearly as valuable and as difficult a service: it gives back to people, who on the rare occasions they’re even seen onscreen are usually deprived of any agency at all, at least a little ownership of their stories. [B+/A-]