We all know that some people take heroin but for most of us it is what “those people” do, a practice beyond the fringes of mainstream society we engage with at a distance – if at all – through the press and stylised media representations. With their latest feature, Heaven Knows What, Josh and Benny Safdie transcend this distance by recruiting real life heroin addict Arielle Holmes to play herself (as Harley) and tell her chaotic true story. Madly in love with the sadistic Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones) whose twisted notions of fidelity involve goading her to commit suicide, Harley roams the streets of New York in search of her next rush, never worrying too much about such inconveniences as a home or a job.
The narrative constantly leaps – usually without a sense of cause or connection – from scenes of drug taking and love making to violence, theft and heightened emotions, as the Safdies’ try their best to immerse us in the frenetic short- termism of substance addiction. The frantic, weaving, synth-heavy score adds to the sense of edginess and foreboding, though at times verging on the intrusive. The excited visuals cap off the wild impression, thanks to the camera’s constant shaking, blurring, zooming and panning and the Godard-style jump cuts that punctuate the action.
Shot with a wide zoom lens by cinematographer Sean Price Williams, scenes are often interrupted by pedestrians and cars walking right in front the actors, reinforcing the point that we are watching people filtered out of everyday existence. Despite the achingly raw performances and formal inventiveness, Heaven Knows What struggles as a piece of gripping cinema. Like other films that attempt to portray the reality of addicts, it has difficulty transcending its own unrelenting aesthetic and thematic grimness to offer the viewer any kind of universality. Once the initial impact of the film’s intense first half hour wears off, one begins to wonder why one should care at all about its nihilistic protagonists and their angsty behaviour.
Ilya is a compulsively dislikeable death metal fanatic who abuses those who care for him and sneaks weapons into a fistfight, while Harley – as tragically vulnerable as she is – lacks any sense of willpower or personality with which to identify. Only drug dealer and Harley’s back-up lover Mike is sympathetic to any extent, but he is usually too high or panicked about his next sale to give Harley much moral support. Ultimately, while the Safdie’s deserve plaudits for their authentic portrayal of a subculture, as a work of fiction – rather than a documentary – Heaven Knows What is good without being great.
Maximilian Von Thun | @M3Yoshioka