She says she is going to kill herself, and he responds with indifference. They both call the other’s bluff, as if suicide is only form of true expression left, and the stand-off ends with her in the hospital. This is the intense, intimate start of Heaven Knows What, a portrayal of heroin addicts in New York City that avoids judgment and moralizing. Directors Ben and Josh Safdie realize this material is difficult, so they pepper the drama with virtuoso cinematography and a blaring electro soundtrack. There are no lessons – not for the characters, anyway – and the unflinching premise may be too much for those who are needle averse. There’s passion and empathy here, however, and the film is a reminder of how hopeless addicts have moments of humanity, too.
Like Kids, Larry Clark’s infamous film about streetwise New York teenagers, Heaven Knows What does not have much in the way of a plot. Instead, it follows a cycle of desperation, the search for money, the search for a fix, and the all-important, fleeting high. The varying depths of addiction have a direct relationship with the personality of the addicts, who veer between depression and amorality.
The authenticity of Heaven Knows What is due to Arielle Holmes, a former addict who wrote the novel the Safdies adapted. Holmes is also the star of the film: she plays Harley, a lovesick junkie with a husky voice who has no home, friends, or family. She loves Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), a longhaired loser who will steal anything and shoot up anywhere. The doomed pair run through New York, hanging out in parks and libraries, with the unspoken suggestion that heroin dwarfs virtually all other desire.
Most filmmakers who tackle a subculture within New York City somehow make the city integral to the story they want to tell. The Safdies take an opposite approach, to the point where Heaven Knows What is downright claustrophobic. Instead of establishing shots other typical entry points, the camera plunges us into a series of uncomfortable, grotesque close-ups. The addicts make out on the street – they have nowhere else – so the first thing we notice is the pallor of their skin. These close-ups continue throughout arguments, including the suicide aforementioned suicide attempt. Heaven Knows What successfully suggests the tactile, moment-to-moment reality of these lives.
In addition to close-ups, there are well-choreographed sequences, too. The opening credits unfold in an intense single take that follows Harley through the hospital experience, showing the ugly side of public hospitals and that the alternative from addiction is not exactly rosier (the throbbing electronic score is obtrusive, as if to add style to a sequence where dialogue would be too much to bear). The directors finally allow traditional, wider angle shots during dialogue scenes, although that’s to demonstrate single-minded, intense character logic.
The closest thing Harley has to a friend is Mike, except he’s a dealer, too, and he succumbs to pressure since he lacks the faculties to refuse others. Mike is played by Buddy Duress, an amateur actor who was at Riker’s Island for drug-related offenses last year, and his soft-spoken performance is the entry point to the nightmare of everyone else’s life. Like Holmes, Duress’ performance feels so authentic that Heaven Knows What unfolds like a documentary: there is no sense of artifice, and I would think Holmes is still an addict, except for the fact that she’s accepting new roles and has an agent.
Whereas Mike is relatively saint like, Ilya is almost evil. He represents an addict at their worst: he has no sense of the past or responsibility, which frees him from society in any meaningful way. Jones plays Ilya without any apologies or pity because that would betray the film’s integrity. In a film full of fearless performances, Jones’ stands out because he’s a monster without any self-awareness.
In the corners of the camera frame, there are glimmers of the New York City we know and recognize. As Harley runs through the Upper West Side and Morningside Park, the cumulative effect is to implicate the audience in the action. These addicts are all around the city, yet most of us have trained ourselves not to see them. Their utter isolation leads to their own code, their own vocabulary, and their own desires. Heaven Knows What has an intriguing conclusion: the filmmakers dedicate it to the real Ilya, who died this year. His character arc is hellish, with imagery so jarring that it interrupts the film’s rhythm. While his final scene is implausible, it’s a reprieve from the kind of death that haunts their lives. In a world where a fix matters more than decency, the scene is Holmes’ final gift Ilya, who may not deserve better.