To the non-addict, the addict is incomprehensible. Why does she endure so much shit, pay out so much money, waste so much time just to get high? Why does she cast aside all the comforts of a conventional life? Why does she forgo even her own personal well-being — food, shelter, the basic necessities of life? Can she not see that her addiction is completely irrational, even insane?
But, as Josh Safdie (who co-wrote Heaven Knows What with Ronald Bronstein and co-directed with his brother Ben) has pointed out in interviews, there is another type of person who acts like this — one who is in love. And though Heaven Knows What is very much a movie about a girl who is addicted to heroin, it is not addiction but love — crazed, demented, illogical love — that forms the core of the film. (Arielle Holmes’ unpublished memoir, which inspired the film, is appropriately titled “Mad Love in New York City.”)
Most stories of addiction are vertical in structure, either a downward spiral into the fetid swamps of addiction or an inspiring rise from drugs to redemption. But Heaven Knows What is cyclical. At no point in the film does Harley — the film’s central character, played with scabrous intensity by Arielle Holmes, who is essentially reenacting her own life on screen — even entertain the notion of quitting. For Harley, heroin is basically a routine, two bags in the morning, two at night. The rest of the day is spent working (i.e., panhandling and occasional petty theft) and bounding around a various public spaces — the street, the park, the library, fast food restaurants, even an ATM vestibule — all while keeping track of a surprisingly complex accounting of debts and assets. This is not to suggest that Harley just is living a nine-to-five lifestyle by other means — her days are far more chaotic, and she is far too unpredictable — only that drugs have not turned her into the half-crazed dopefiend of popular imaginings.
Love is the truly destabilizing force in Harley’s life. In the film’s shocking pre-credits sequence, we find Harley, completely distraught and guilt-ridden, confronting her love, the vampiric Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), in a public library: “I’m sorry, but I’m about to die right now, and I really want you to be there.” Moments later, we see that this is no empty proclamation; on the street, goaded by a cheering Ilya, Harley dives a razor blade into her wrist. This leads to a fascinating credits sequence — a beautiful and unsettling short film in its own right — featuring Harley in a tumultuous mental ward scored to the percolating arpeggiations of Paul Grimstad’s synth. Once out, Harley immediately joins up with her old crew, particularly Mike (Buddy Duress), a well-meaning sort who takes on the role of Harley’s protector and enabler. But Harley’s heart belongs to another, and she eventually makes her way back to Ilya.
Much of the film is spent in the company of Harley’s junkie coterie, most of whom are portrayed by nonprofessional actors. These people are often abrasive and argumentative, their dramas played out in public, for all the world to see. Watching them can be exhausting, and the Safdies heighten their insularity with tight, uncomfortable close-ups, provided by cinematographer Sean Price Williams, that tend to close out the rest of the world. Much of the film was shot on the streets guerilla-style, often from blocks away, creating a turbulent atmosphere that matches the chaos of their lives. Passers-by are often walking into shots, and cars frequently block out the screen, just as the heavy traffic of city life must constantly intrude on the lives of street-dwellers. While it is not unusual to employ a ragged directorial aesthetic to match the turmoil of life on the streets, Paul Grimstad’s almost science-fiction-y synth score provides a burbling counterpoint that never allows us to get too comfortable in our own discomfort.
As noted above, Heaven Knows What is based on Arielle Holmes’ own experiences, most of them quite recent. The cast is full of people playing variations of themselves. The film was shot on the streets of New York. And yet, the film is not the work of social realism all that suggests. Rather, it is a complex, often deeply weird work of psychological realism in the rough-hewn mode of Cassavetes. (In one shot, for example, Ilya throws Harley’s phone in the air, and it explodes into a firework.) The Safdies are particularly interested in moral transgressions between loved ones. In “Daddy Longlegs,” a father pushes several boundaries when taking care of his sons, most (in)famously drugging them with sleeping pills, thereby accidentally putting them into a semi-coma. Here, Ilya treats Harley in a similarly callous manner, at one point telling her, “If you loved me, you would have killed yourself by now.” Perhaps the Safdies most difficult choice is to largely withhold Ilya from us. We cannot see Ilya as Harley sees him — and neither can Mike, who suffers a homemade ninja star to the hand when he fights Ilya to save Harley from him — and yet we hear her say of Ilya, “Everything that I am today came from you.”
We feel for her, but we don’t quite understand her. Holmes’ performance keeps us riveted, convincingly conveying the simultaneous strength and vulnerability suggested by her story, but her love for Ilya (whose real-life counterpart died last year at the age of 25) remains incomprehensible. Why does she remain devoted to this guy who treats her so badly? As Harley tells Mike, “It doesn’t matter what he does. I love him.”