Let It Come Down
By Nick Pinkerton

Heaven Knows What
Dir. Josh and Bennie Safdie, U.S., Radius-TWC

There is a borderline grotesque incongruity particular to the playing out of private drama against the very public backdrop of a major city’s crowded streets. You have seen, I trust, someone in the tunnel-vision stage of argument, alone or on their cell phone, barreling down the sidewalk, consumed entirely in a personal urgency that means nothing whatsoever to the people who they pass or are passed by, other than that it gives them someone ridiculous to scoff at. These people are ridiculous for caring so much about something that the rest of the world cares about not at all—their own lives. They are ridiculous because they make explicit the position that we are all in, vessels adrift in a vast sea of indifference.

Heaven Knows What, the new film by Josh and Bennie Safdie, never entirely forgets the perspective of the bystander. It was shot on the Upper West Side of Manhattan during this last, brutal winter, and more than once in the film the camera assumes a position akin to that of a pedestrian watching an argument in the street just long enough to wonder “What’s that all about?”

What’s it all about? The title is as close to an answer as the Safdies give. The woman who’s always making a scene on the sidewalk is Harley (Arielle Holmes). Harley doesn’t look to be much older than twenty. One of the reasons that she’s always losing it in public is that she doesn’t, properly speaking, have a home. She only has two focuses in life: scoring dope and pining after her sometimes-maybe boyfriend, another junkie named Ilya (played by Caleb Landry Jones, a translucently pale orc with a frazzled black Clairol job that looks crispy to the touch).

To make someone like Harley the subject of the movie without the benefit of a sympathetic backstory to be slowly doled out is to double-dog-dare an audience to care. “A person like that is not, in my opinion, worth making a movie about,” the immortal Rex Reed recently wrote of Alex Ross Perry’s brazenly off-putting Listen Up Philip, another banner-carrier for “difficult” cinema in this year’s New York Film Festival crop. And while it’s reassuring to know that what appears under Rex’s byline is in fact his opinion, I still prefer Terence’s good ol’ “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.”

Harley isn’t a feted novelist like the subject of Perry’s film, but she is young and she is white and she is good-looking, and if you clocked her spanging with the homeless-for-the-summer kids on St. Mark’s Place, you’d probably find it hard to dig into your pockets for her, so much has she clearly squandered her genetic jackpot. At the very least couldn’t the filmmakers reassure us that she was molested?!

Heaven knows why, but Harley doesn’t hold herself in high regard. It’s hard to say which of her self-destructive addictions is the worst; the heroin at least is indifferent to her, while Ilya maliciously treats her like shit until, quite arbitrarily, he feels like treating her otherwise. The conventional wisdom on shooting dope is that you’re always trying to get back to that first high, and that seems to be how Harley approaches love, too. She’s a disappointed romantic, her worried look stemming from a conviction that nothing will be good enough ever again.

Early in the film we find Harley professing her unwanted love to her over-it swain, who’s preoccupied listening to scorched-earth Black Metal on a computer at the public library. She insists that she would die for Ilya, he presses her to prove it, and she dutifully opens a wrist. Some time later, after a stay in Bellevue, a routine of squalling arguments, and a brief period spent shacking up with a low-level dealer, Mike (Buddy Duress), Harley and Ilya reconcile, seemingly for really real. They get on a bus together to light out for warmer climes—until they get past city limits, she nods off, and he bails on the side of the road, the classic Five Easy Pieces dick move.

We don’t know where Harley comes from—by the way she pronounces “water” as “wutter” I’d have guessed Philly, though a profile of Holmes in Interview gives her hometown as Bayonne, New Jersey, just a badly-in-need-of-a-paint-job bridge and a ferry ride away from Manhattan. (And probably not far from where Harley wakes up on that bus, alone.) The Interview piece goes to extravagant lengths to make the circumstances of Holmes’s “discovery” seem totally devoid of anything but detached professional interest: “A year ago, while doing research for a different film set in the city's Diamond District, Josh, 30, the elder Safdie brother, spotted Holmes, then 19, entering the subway. Driven by an intense curiosity for people and tremendously skilled at casting non-actors in his films, Safdie approached the cautious teenager about acting in his production.”

Now this sounds an awful lot like a pick-up to me—in interviews, Josh hasn’t been shy about discussing the draw of Holmes’s physical beauty—and that’s fine, unless “You’re really gorgeous, can I put you in a movie?” is some kind of unforgivable hustle in your book. The rest of the story goes as follows: Safdie learns that Holmes was addicted to heroin, in a dysfunctional relationship with a dude named Ilya, and living on the streets. He urges her to write something about her experiences. She complies, and he and his brother decide to adapt the resulting document, called Mad Love in New York City, as their next movie. Vincent Gallo was purportedly involved in an early version of the project. Then friend (and star of the Safdies’ Daddy Longlegs) Ronald Bronstein came to pitch in on the script, and out of unpropitious circumstances—the harried, improvised nature of the lifestyle being represented was seemingly mirrored in the shoot—a movie emerged. A couple years later, Holmes is cleaned up, has professional representation, and is walking the red carpet at Venice. So I ask ya, who’s hustling who?

I’m putting a cynical spin on this, but it’s hard not to think about Heaven Knows What in terms of hustle, because that’s what the movie’s all about—about people feeding on other people’s needs to satisfy their own, always testing other people to see what they can pull over on them. (See, for example, the terrific scene where Harley hectors Mike into giving her a double-dose for her bedtime high.) Ilya is an unrepentant user in every sense of the word who gets his jollies from exercising influence; he’s a wannabe cult leader who issues commandments from out of a druggy haze, like Darby Crash without the genius. Harley is defined by her combination of selflessness and selfishness, each equally unexamined. In her, a romantic teenager’s in-love-with-love ability to give herself totally and completely coexists with a junkie’s need to get her fix by any means necessary. Given the libido-suppressing qualities of heroin, sex barely seems to enter into the equation, and outside of Ilya, Harley chooses her relationships on a purely pragmatic basis. After Ilya tosses Harley over, her friend Skully (rapper Necro) gives her quite reasonable advice against the toxicity of the relationship, evidently inspired by a puppyish crush, but he’s too husky and too boring and too old—there’s no angle—and so she hooks up with Mike instead, who at least is going to keep her feeling the way she wants to feel. Later, when Mike takes Harley to meet up with his connection (Benjamin Antoine Hampton), she jumps on this new guy’s motorcycle and lets him speed her up and down the street, and for a moment seems perfectly ready to go off wherever he’s going if he’ll have her along.

In a time when almost everything written about Manhattan seems to address its sterilization, Heaven Knows What appears to have dropped in from another decade. The Panic in Needle Park is one point of reference, though Larry Clark’s Kids might be another—movies that embed the viewer into a (presumably) heretofore-unknown world, and impress with an insider’s knowledge of that world’s day-to-day realities. (There is also a long, clumsy, flailing fistfight between Mike and Ilya that took me back to the 1992 Brooklyn of Nick Gomez’s Laws of Gravity.) Kids teaches you how to roll a blunt and shoplift a 40 from a bodega; Heaven Knows What how to turn a profit by rooting through an unattended mailbag or reselling 5-hour energy drinks to newsstand vendors. In their indulgence of the documentary impulse, they’re lowlife tutorials. (I’m tempted to mention Floyd Mutrux’s 1971 Dusty and Sweets McGee, if only because it can never be mentioned too much, but it’s a West Coast heroin movie, its textures and its languor entirely different.)

As Heaven Knows What’s press clippings attest, the movie traffics in the promise that it will bring viewers close to street reality: to Holmes’s irresistible backstory we can add the fact that Duress—an engaging motormouth with a charmingly crooked grill—was doing time at Rikers Island on “drug-related offenses” when the film premiered, and that the rent-controlled apartment in which he and Harley finagle a room and its “landlady” are meticulously based on a real place and a real person.

I am not now nor have I ever been addicted to heroin, nor have I lived on the streets, so I can’t comment on how authentically this material is handled. I will say that the behavior of these people—Harley, Mike, Ilya—while very often reprehensible, never seems to originate from anywhere other than the characters themselves; not from some secularized idea of Catholic grace, as in the work of a certain fraternal filmmaking team from Belgium, or in order to serve the contingencies of the plot, of which there is not a great deal. Harley embodies a passion for martyrdom, regardless of the cause, that is common if not exclusive to youth—you hope she’ll leave it behind, that she’ll start to ascribe some value to her own life, though the movie ends giving no more indication as to where she’s going as it did to where she came from. I might add that she reminds me quite uncannily of a young lady I used to know; when last I heard from her, she had gotten on and off heroin, and was going to write her survivor memoir—no habit is complete, I suppose, until you produce your own Junkie.

None of this is to indicate that the Safdies subscribe to the formal template that is currently understood to constitute realism—a term that really should never be spoken without air quotes—other than in their dedication to behavioral observation. There is no attempt to disguise the movie-ness of Heaven Knows What. There are loads of consuming close-ups, lingering to read behind Holmes’s large, hungry eyes. At a time when credits sequences are increasingly truncated or discarded entirely as artificial frivolities, this movie has two of them, and they are doozies. The electronic soundtrack—synth versions of Debussy from Isao Tomita, James Dashow, and Tangerine Dream—is aggressively up-front in the mix, that is, when it doesn’t drop out entirely. It made me think of the punitive noisescapes in Tobe Hooper’s films, a connection only strengthened when Harley winds up on the shoulder of the turnpike crying and wailing, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Final Girl.

A compact 94 minutes, Heaven Knows What is a movie with feverish drive, dragged this way and that by Harley’s appetites and Ilya’s whim to carrot-on-a-stick her around with the promise of reciprocal affection. Throughout, the perspective commutes regularly between swooning intimacy and bystander detachment. The film was shot by Sean Price Williams, also the cinematographer of Listen Up Philip, who even on lesser movies always gets off a few frames that stick with me after everything else has fallen away. Williams has a knack for indelibly catching the presence and essence of objects—here I am thinking in particular of a shot of a cluster of white, melting candles in Ilya’s squat that set off a fire, resulting in probably the least-mourned death in cinema since the Wicked Witch of the West’s meltdown. And in fact Heaven Knows What, in the crisp, wintery lightness of the images, which infuse the film with a sort of enchantment, in Harley’s “some day my prince will come” longing, and the final slaying of the ogrish Ilya, does have something of the aspect of a fairy tale, more so than another recent Williams-shot film in which the attempt is overt, Jessica Oreck’s vaporous The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga.

Will Harley live Happily Ever After? Will the Safdies? Will Arielle Holmes? Reports from the film’s Lincoln Center premiere tell me that a fellow with a fresh head wound from “skateboarding” and fairly reeking of booze was introducing himself as “the real Ilya,” as though this was cause for congratulations. So the fatal conflagration was apparently a piece of cinematic invention, if not something taking place in the theater of Harley’s mind. At any rate, we can’t really speculate beyond the small cross section of Harley’s life that Holmes and the Safdies have given us—but as the movie ends, there is a distinct sense that we’ve seen exactly enough.