Right from its opening sequence, one can sense something startlingly different going on in Heaven Knows What compared to previous films by the indie filmmaking duo of Benny and Joshua Safdie. Instead of their usual emphasis on John Cassavetes-style naturalism, as evidenced in their 2009 feature Daddy Longlegs and 2010 short John’s Gone, the Safdies immediately thrust viewers into something of an alien environment, one scored to Isao Tomita’s ambient synthesizer drones and shot in grainy sunlit tones by cinematographer Sean Price Williams. Consider this a slice of the titular heaven to the hell that follows.
Here, hell is the heroin subculture of New York City, and our guide into this desperate dominion is Harley, who’s given astonishingly vivid life by first-time actress Arielle Holmes. The Safdies discovered Holmes, a former homeless heroin addict, on the streets and decided to make a film about her experiences. Her deeply intimate knowledge of this milieu is evinced in the character’s dialogue and gestures, and the Safdies further color her in by tapping into their own uncanny ability to evoke a sustained sense of lived-in authenticity through drawn-out dialogue scenes and close-up-heavy camerawork. If nothing else, Heaven Knows What is one of the most harrowing cinematic depictions of drug addiction in recent memory, reliant less on formal gimmickry than on close observation of behavior.
But the film is more than just a chronicle of a young woman’s addiction to drugs. Much of it focuses on the see-sawing, turbulent relationship between Harley and Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), and one immediately senses how emotionally abusive it is when, within the film’s opening moments, Harley threatens to slit her wrists as a gesture of love and he not only seems indifferent, but also goads her into following through. The fact that she actually does it before she gets committed to Bellevue for a spell indicates the depth of her desire for him.
Harley, in a sense, is also addicted to love, finding a perverse doomed romanticism in this increasingly debilitating relationship. And perhaps the most thrilling thing of all about Heaven Knows What is the Safdies’ willingness to dive deep into her drug-induced madness while also observing it with a warily detached eye. The film is less cautionary tale than character study, one that isn’t afraid to go to poetic lengths to depict Harley’s turbulent inner life. And crucial to this artistic effect is the electronic music on the soundtrack—predominantly Tomita’s electronic transcriptions of Claude Debussy works, such as “Clair de Lune”—that works to defamiliarize our feel for the New York City streets while simultaneously expressing Harley’s thirst for life.
The Safdies gather all these stylistic, emotional, and thematic threads for a final movement that adds up to a heartbreaking depiction of Harley’s loss of innocence. One of the reasons this last third is so devastating is that it offers a soaring glimpse of that romantic high that Harley has sought with Ilya: Here, at last, is a sense of how these two can be during the good times; the chemistry between them is palpable to the touch. But, these characters being who they are, this paradise cannot last—and in its final scene, Harley finally, quietly, wordlessly realizes this, her bitter understanding given an almost cruel punctuation mark when the film suddenly begins to roll credits. As bleak as this conclusion is, there’s also a subtle sense of renewed possibilities, of moving on, as Harley is finally learning to put away childish things.