In one form or another, pretty much everyone has had to deal with the ravages of addiction. Whether it is battling personal demons or a loved one afflicted, the shadow of chemical dependency looms over us all. When these topics are dealt with in cinema, most films that tangle with this topic find themselves formulaically about the quest for redemption, a triumphant tale of a kind-hearted soul overcoming their personal adversity. You know, bullshit. Which isn’t to say that recovery isn’t possible for those dealing with addiction, it’s just that most of these films ignore the darkest elements of the struggle in favor of wrapping everything up with a pretty little bow on top. One film which doesn’t do that is Heaven Knows What, the latest film by Benny and Joshua Safdie, which shuns the tale of redemption in favor of a look at the cyclical nature of addiction.
The film opens with Harley (Arielle Holmes) in a public library, pleading for forgiveness from Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), her on-again, off-again boyfriend. When the long-haired Ilya ignores her pleas, Harley scrounges change and purchases some razor blades. Dejected and rejected, Arielle is pushed to a suicide attempt by the cruel taunts of the cruel man she loves. When she’s finally released from the hospital, Harley returns to life on the streets. She hooks up with Mike (Buddy Duress), a local drug dealer, and the two scrape and scrounge in the different boroughs of the city. The two spend their time shooting up, staying at flophouses, and committing various crimes to help fund their habit. Even in the big city, the world of homeless addicts is still a tight-knit circle and the manipulative and cruel Ilya is never far away. Though he is cruel and indifferent towards Harley, she loves him and, like the heroin coursing her veins, she can’t quit him. Self-medication can dull the reality of their situation, but it can’t eliminate the fact that for each of these tortured souls the next hit might very well be their last.
Heaven Knows What is based upon the unpublished memoir Mad Love in New York City by the film’s star Arielle Holmes, which recounts her own harrowing addiction and her experiences as a homeless addict on the streets of the Big Apple. Directors Benny and Joshua Safdie met the young woman on the streets and encouraged her to write about her experiences. Joshua Safdie and co-writer Ronald Bronstein adapted the writing into a heartbreaking screenplay, a multi-layered tragedy of crippling addiction. Benny and Joshua Safdie then populated the film with some real life homeless people, which works in unison with the film’s naturalistic cinematography. This is a film that captures the look of its source material, never afraid to reflect the true ugliness of its story.
Making her acting debut, Arielle Holmes is a revelation. The actress is capable of slowly breaking your heart with each and every bad decision she makes. Even working within the confines of autobiography, the actress never fills the work with self-pity, opting instead exorcise the demons of her past through an honest exploration of her darkest moments. As Harley’s other addiction, Caleb Landry Jones is also phenomenal as Ilya. You can’t help but have contempt for the character’s cruelty, though Landry Jones is able to sneak in the moments of subtle tenderness that ensnared Harley. Also making his acting debut is Buddy Duress, who the press notes call “a 29-year-old street legend.” Neither of these characters are particularly likable, but you can’t help but empathize with a roster of characters that are circling the drain of life.
The story, the look, and the acting of Heaven Knows What is unsettling, but not in a bad way. That unsettling tone of the film is amplified by the pulsating synthesized of Isao Tomita’s bizarre arrangements of Claude Debussy. The music recalls the synthesizer soundtracks from John Carpenter’s horror films. It gives Heaven Knows What the feel of a different kind of horror film. There’s no evil or fears personified here, but there’s a different kind of destructive entity that lingers around the corner of every frame of the film.
Heaven Knows What is an unsettling and affecting film that explores the horrors of heroin addiction without judgment. Here we have a film that avoids that moment of clarity, where the lead character is forced to confront the errors of their ways before sending the audience out full with a smile on their face. But Arielle Holmes and Benny and Joshua Safdie know that’s not how it works. They’ve crafted a film that reflects the terrifying reality of its subject. It’s not inconceivable that each of the characters on screen might be dead within months, if not weeks. But the film still finds some ironic humor in its subject, like when Mike is telling Harley not get on a motorcycle because it might kill her even though the duo just scored some heroin. Since leaving the screening room, the haunting tragedy of Heaven Knows What has lingered in my mind. This is a powerful film that should not be missed.
Heaven Knows What opens in New York and Los Angeles on May 29th and expand to other cities following that.