Heaven Knows What (2014)
Directors: Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie
Screenwriters: Josh Safdie, Ronald Bronstein
Starring: Arielle Holmes, Caleb Landry Jones, Buddy Duress
Josh and Benny Safdie’s second feature dives head first into the murky, microcosmic world of New York City’s street kids. The blossoming directorial duo played with some sinister themes in their debut feature Daddy Long Legs, but with Heaven Knows What they fully immerse themselves into the unrelenting grime and vagrancy of their beloved New York City streets.
The brothers met the film’s subject Arielle Holmes while completing research for a movie they had written, set in New York’s famed diamond district (the film which would become Uncut Gems), and approached her believing her to be a Russian diamond district worker. After learning that Holmes was actually a homeless drug-addict, entangled in a desperately obsessive relationship with a young man named Ilya, the brothers where quickly side-tracked and began persuading her to write a memoir. Holmes produced “Mad Love In New York City”, the stories of her moment-to-moment existence as a young woman living on the streets, trying to manage her cult-like addictions to both heroin and young love. With their co-writer Ronald Bronstein, the brothers adapted the memoir into the screenplay for Heaven Knows What; later choosing to cast Holmes as Harley, an overemphasised version of herself, and a troop of her junkie friends to play the film’s secondary characters.
In terms of plot, there isn’t much to sink your teeth into. Harley’s days mainly revolve around menial tasks, such as picking up a bag, making thirty dollars, or bumming a ride on the subway. Yet, every moment of her neo-realist journey through the gritty labyrinth of New York City’s colourful streets is chock-full of unbearable tension. The urgency is born from the Safdies’ use of cross-talk (actors talking over the top of one another) and an intrusive, pulsating score, the erratic energy of which heightens every moment of the film. In one scene, as she is nodding out on heroin, Harley tries to thread a needle as the intense electronic score slowly creeps up around her. The small task is unbearable to watch— the tension of the moment is equitable to an approaching horror-movie jump-scare or a nail-biting critical action sequence; the kind we are often only able to watch through half-closed eyes.
In terms of the subject matter, it isn’t that the film breaks new ground. The daily lives of drug addicts is a vastly overworked narrative, explored in cinema countless times. However, the film does offer something contemporary in terms of its perspective. We see the City’s seedy underbelly from the eyes of a young woman, and, although Harley is consistently scheming and clawing herself towards her next fix, it seems as if the drugs are a minor problem in relation to her primary fixation, which centres around something most 20-something-year old girls are incredibly familiar with, a boy.
Harley dedicates her very existence to her obsession with her dead-beat, fairly loathsome boyfriend, Ilya (Caleb Landy Jones), so much so that she is even willing to die for him. ‘If you love me, you would have killed yourself by now’ screams Ilya as he goads Harley into cutting her wrists, an action which sees her hospitalised. Yet despite his jealousy and his constant barrage of put-downs and insults, the flame of Harley’s love never quells, she prickles to attention every time he’s nearby or runs to his side whenever he needs help. Towards the end of the film, Ilya snatches Harley’s phone away from her and throws it up into the air where it seamlessly transforms into an exploding firework. It might be the drugs or the power of young love, but it could be that we too have joined the cult of Ilya, believing him capable of magic having ingested so much of Harley’s bewitched perception of him.
Although the momentum of the film rests on Harley’s shoulders, it is the presence, both physical and incorporeal, of Ilya which commands the direction of her journey. His appearance in the film is reminiscent of Rebecca in Hitchcock’s Rebecca. Although we never get to see her, Rebecca dominates every aspect of Hitchcock’s narrative. The mere mention of the deceased, former Lady of Manderley, brings about a supreme sense of dread and crisis, which protagonist, the second Mrs De Winter, spends the entire run-time fleeing from. Within Heaven Knows What, Ilya pops up sporadically, disappearing as quickly as he surfaces. Despite telling us very little about him, or what it is that makes him utterly enchanting, the movie finds structure around Ilya’s presence. His looming aura lurks in the shadows of Harley’s life, and she is unable and unwilling to escape from him. “Do you think you’re going to be in love with him forever?” asks Harley’s exacerbated friend Mike (Buddy Duress) after he points out the awful ways in which Ilya treats her. She shrugs, already surrendered to her inevitable destiny, “I know I will be”.
With Heaven Knows What, the Safdies once again demonstrate their savvy ability to sensationalise reality. The brothers are obsessively committed to a neo-realist, documentarian approach in which realism informs almost every aspect of their movie-making process. Many of the actors in the film are playing overemphasised versions of themselves in a semi-fabricated version of their own reality. They perform their scenes on the streets of New York like live-action street theatre, utterly invisible to their audience of New Yorkers who have become desensitised to the constant onslaught of half-lucid shouting coming from addicts and the forgotten mentally ill. Sean Price Williams’ cinematography carries the momentum of this close to the ground feeling; by using long lenses, he was able to keep a distance from the actors, giving them the room to absorb themselves into the drama fully. The use of hand-held cameras provides the footage with a natural jerkiness, incorporating the viewer so entirely into the perspective of the characters that we can almost smell the stale alcohol and unwashed bodies we are surrounded by.
The central grip of the film comes from Arielle Holmes, who turns in a performance worthy of a seasoned actor. Petite and peculiarly beautiful underneath her doped out, half-closed eyes, Harley reveals herself to be a scrappy-smooth talker who is entirely capable of looking out for herself and letting others know how things are going to be. It’s disappointing that we don’t get to know more about her, but given that she is a young woman living on the streets, perhaps there isn’t much more to her than boy troubles and drug addiction. Other standouts are Caleb Landry Jones, who brings a darkly romantic Ilya to life, and Buddy Duress as Mike, who carries around exact essence of a typical no-nonsense New Yorker in the coarse expressions of his boxer-like face.
It’s endlessly exciting to watch the Safdie Brothers cut out their own space in the film industry, although they draw from a well of influence and an avid love of movies, everything they produce feels fresh and era-defining. With each feature they play with the rules, grow into their own as filmmakers and experiment with cinema in a way which feels criminal. Heaven Knows What is only a taste of Josh and Benny’s talents as storytellers, but it’s enough to get you completely hooked.