New York has often been the setting for films about heroin addicts, with titles ranging from Shirley Clarke’s cinéma-vérité-tweaking The Connection (1961) to Slava Tsukerman’s new-wave cult classic Liquid Sky (1982) mining the drama of smack freaks tying off, shooting up, and nodding out. But Josh and Benny Safdie’s tough, lean Heaven Knows What has a searing intensity those antecedents lack: It centers on electrifying newcomer Arielle Holmes as a homeless junkie named Harley, a character largely shaped by the performer’s own extremely recent past.
The Safdie brothers’ film, in fact, takes off from Holmes’s as-yet-unpublished book Mad Love in New York City, a chronicle of her teenage vagrancy and obsessive, self-destructive passion for a fellow skag user. The memoir resulted from a chance meeting between Holmes and Josh Safdie (at 31, his sibling’s elder by two years) in Manhattan’s diamond district; the filmmaker was so intrigued by the young woman, then 19, that he encouraged her to write her autobiography, which Holmes composed in Apple Stores throughout the borough. The raw material of her life was adapted into a script by the older Safdie and Ronald Bronstein (re-teaming with the brothers after starring in their semi-autobiographical Daddy Longlegs, from 2009), each scene of which is ignited by Holmes’s feral, corrosive energy.
We first meet Harley in a moment of extreme self-abasement, as she pleads, in a thick Garden State accent, “What can I do for you to forgive me? Would you forgive me if I died?” She's desperate to make amends for some unknown transgression with her monstrous, cadaverous boyfriend, Ilya (played by Caleb Landry Jones, the sole professional actor in the cast, and here looking like an only slightly less grimy version of the ogre who lives behind the dumpster in Mulholland Drive). As she prepares to slit her tiny wrists, Ilya claps and cheers her on (“Yo, watch this shit!”); Harley’s resultant stay at Bellevue is scored to Paul Grimstad's trance-y symphony, the overwhelming electronica the only sound we hear as she mixes it up with other patients.
As in Daddy Longlegs and The Pleasure of Being Robbed (2008), Josh’s debut feature, Heaven Knows What assembles a perfect supporting cast of like-minded misfits to orbit around its central character. Plodding from fix to fix, from one temporary housing arrangement to the next, Harley latches on to a dealer named Mike (Buddy Duress, a dead ringer for a zonked-out Vinnie Barbarino). He's prone to a burnout’s bravado (“I make $900,000 every day!”) and pitiful gestures of largesse: To keep management from kicking him out, he offers to buy jalapeño sliders for all the patrons of the White Castle where he’s holding court. Mike becomes a make-do companion for Harley during Ilya’s disappearances, though her allegiance to the sociopath is never in question.
Like Jerry Schatzberg’s The Panic in Needle Park (1971), another tale of a heroin-hooked couple, Heaven Knows What takes place primarily on the Upper West Side. The generic, well-heeled neighborhood’s sidewalk sheds provide the perfect spot for Harley’s “spanging,” though her solicitations for loose change are interrupted by her ferocious fights with Ilya or by her narcotized napping. To emphasize the enormity of Harley’s needs — for drugs, for Ilya’s affections — the slight, delicate young woman is often shot in tight close-up by cinematographer Sean Price Williams. Yet the camera just as frequently pulls back, tracking the frantic flittings of the cast as they hope to score (or settle scores) in the parks of Manhattan’s northwest corner. Similar shots dominate The Panic in Needle Park, but that film, featuring a pre-superstardom Al Pacino in full Method-y, showboating glory, never quite achieves the immediacy of Heaven Knows What, which always remains tethered to scorched earth.
The characters in the Safdies’ movie can be aggravating, at times unbearable company, but it is impossible to turn away from them. Random bits of overheard junkie jibber-jabber — “He won the Nobel Prize,” “He’s an astronomer” — fascinate with their incongruities; so too does the Facebook account the address-less Harley checks at the nearest branch of the NYPL, or the motto emblazoned on the back of Mike’s jacket: success through partnership. The film avoids prurience and druggie cliché through its detailed, dispassionate semi-ethnography, becoming the polar opposite of Darren Aronofsky’s raving needle-and-the-damage-done melodrama Requiem for a Dream (2000).
Informed by the firsthand observations of its lead performer, Heaven Knows What focuses not just on the act of getting high, devoting a few scenes to “wake-ups” — the fix needed upon rising from bed, no matter the hour — but also on the desperate larcenous schemes hatched to pay for dope. Mike grabs a foot-thick stack of mail from an unattended bag, manically sifting through the random letters and bills with Harley and finding a $500 Banana Republic gift card that he tries to use as cash (a junk bond?); Ilya and Harley have a hustle involving the resale of drugstore-shoplifted 5-Hour Energy shots to newsstand operators. Holmes, according to a recent New York Times feature, has been clean since last July (the Safdies paid for her rehab). In the thinly veiled version of her life that appears onscreen, the actress unforgettably shows the deadening toll of always being on the move, only to return to the exact same place.