Heaven Knows What (2014)
Fiction as a window into someone’s lives has always held a certain appeal to creators for ages. Transporting the audience into someone else’s shoes and making them see the world from their eyes has resulted in a wide variant of works. Authenticity is generally the key to such works and as a director duo who have dabbled into exploring niche subcultures before Josh & Benny Safdie are in a sense on familiar territory with their latest feature Heaven Knows What, an uncompromising look into the New York “junkiedom” largely seen from the eyes of its protagonist and actress, Arielle Holmes.
Heaven Knows What delves headfirst into an eerie, oft-unsettling and harsh look at the intertwined lives of drug addicts in New York City.
Based on her own real-life events, Heaven Knows What delves headfirst into an eerie, oft-unsettling and harsh look at the intertwined lives of drug addicts in New York City. After being forced to try to slit her wrists to prove her love to the enigmatic but aloof Ilya, Arielle gets trapped in a vicious cycle of heroin addiction with her dealer friend, Mike and unable to resist the attraction towards the romanticized life of an addict with Ilya. The film explores interesting contrasts as Arielle moves between both these men, each representing different characteristics of a life of an addict, Mike standing for stability but also higher addiction while Ilya standing for the reckless and dangerous, the metaphorical flame for a moth like Arielle who gets drawn to a certain kind of risk.
The film is technically brilliant with directors actually deciding to capture the authenticity of New York City without using a handycam. Rather than zooming close into characters’ faces as they travel across the city, they often show them from a fairly wide angle shot making the viewers’ feel as if the characters they’re focusing on are merely a part of the crowd – one that they too are also a part of daily in the city. Instead of switching camera perspectives too often to describe the hectic lifestyle on the streets of New York, the Safdies hold onto each scene for longer even if the subjects of the scene are briefly obstructed by a fleeting passer-by. This gives the film a strong sense of place and creates an identity and aura of a lived-in space contributing greatly to the authenticity.
One of the film’s most impressive scenes happens right at its start credits sequence as the camera tracks Arielle through a psych ward while all sound levels are absolutely muted except the background score. Characters speak but we can only see their lips moving and the scene so effectively sets the tone for the rest of the film, a beautifully stylish and broken lens describing a landscape that’s very much part of our reality.
The film’s narrative does have the tendency to meander a bit aimlessly although an argument can be made the directionless nature of the narrative mirrors that of an addict.
On top of proficient sound design, Isao Tomita’s rendition of Debussy’s works forms the eerily fitting score of Heaven Knows What – one that’s both beautiful but fractured, one which complements the life as seen from Arielle’s eyes. As the lead and one who is essentially living through an adapted version of her own life, Arielle Holmes is a revelation. A nuanced performance with an impressive range of expressions, she shines consistently through film’s powerful scenes. Caleb Landry Jones as Ilya is almost unrecognizable but his enigmatic charisma makes him a perfect fit for the character, magnetism and crazed threat permeating from his aloof expression. Buddy Duress plays Mike, Arielle’s friend and her heroin dealer and almost effortlessly assumes the street personality. Most of the cast members are part of that subculture which does lend the film some authenticity albeit one viewed from a fictional, surreal lens of the Safdies.
The film’s narrative does have the tendency to meander a bit aimlessly although an argument can be made the directionless nature of the narrative mirrors that of an addict. Heaven Knows What is a film which achieves its self-contained purpose of portraying a niche subculture with authenticity and beyond Safdies’ technical proficiency, Arielle Holmes’ detached but fittingly brilliant performance helps the film reach even higher heights than it could have achieved otherwise.
Heaven Knows What is a film which achieves its self-contained purpose of portraying a niche subculture with authenticity and beyond Safdies’ technical proficiency, Arielle Holmes’ detached but fittingly brilliant performance helps the film reach even higher heights than it could have achieved otherwise.