NYFF Review: ‘Heaven Knows What’

Heaven Knows What Still

Heaven Knows What | Ben Safdie + Joshua Safdie | NYFF 2014

Heroin is a bad, bad, drug. It’s one thing for a movie to portray heroin abuse, and another to see it in real life. But what if both worlds collided? That’s the idea of Ben and Joshua Safdie’s latest picture, a startling film called Heaven Knows What.

The Safdie brothers found former heroin addict Arielle Holmes and based the film about her experience on the streets of New York. Aside from Caleb Landry Jones, the rest of the cast is filled by real life addicts and based their stories loosely around their lives as well (the screenplay was written by Joshua Safdie and Ronald Bronstein). This gives Heaven Knows What an unshakeable feeling of authenticity that separates it from the average film depicting drug addicts.

Instantly were thrown into the harrowing world of Harley (Arielle Holmes) as she clashes with her bi-polar boyfriend Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones). They’re not good for each other, but like heroin they constantly return to each other anyway even though their relationship is clearly toxic. The Safie brothers throw us into the harrowing lifestyle of these addicts, with no easy introduction to be found. In Heaven Knows What’s incredible first few minutes we see Harley slit her wrists to prove a point to the stone cold Ilya. It’s all heightened by a tense synth score from Isao Tomita (based off of Claude Debussy compositions) as well as some intense in-your-face cinematography from Sean Price Williams.

Williams gives us some moments to breathe when we’re following the characters around New York City, but most of the tense moments are shot with extreme close-ups, giving us no way to escape the horrors that these characters face. Long tracking shots suck us in to their every movements. We see them panhandle for money and steal mail so they can find anything of value to help fund their addictive habit. It’s a cold world of never knowing whats coming next, and never really having anyone to trust. They only have each other, but it’s always a dangerous, destructive path.

Since the film’s based on her own experiences, Heaven Knows What is very much Arielle Holmes’ moment. She is excellent as Harley, not needing to be convincing, as every bit of emotion that she shows is real in some way. It’s a raw performance that isn’t glamorous, but it’s powerful enough to stick with you long after the screening is over. Although Caleb Landry Jones is a professional actor, he taps into this performance and runs away with it in a very convincing manner along with all of the real life addicts. He has a great chemistry with Holmes, both are convincing in playing the role of a troubled couple that keep returning to each other.

The Safdie’s don’t care to provide these characters with introductions on their backstory or history. They prefer to throw you into their lives as they are, and follow them every step along the way. It’s as if you happened to stumble across them in real life and follow them up close. It’s not a pretty ride, and in some ways, it has the makings of a real life horror film. But even so, there’s no point of Heaven Knows What where you’re able to be anything but transfixed on the screen. You want to look away, but just like Harley, you keep going back for more.

Rating: 8.5/10