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"Heaven Knows What" is not an easy film, but it's important, making us uncomfortable in its unrelenting "in your face" examination addiction's darkness.

New York Film Festival: ‘Heaven Knows What’

Arielle Holmes in 'Heaven Knows What,' directed by Benny and Joshua Safdie. Photo from the film.
Arielle Holmes in ‘Heaven Knows What,’ directed by Benny and Joshua Safdie. Photo from the film.

Heaven Knows What, directed by Josh and Benny Safdie is a smash and grab. It hits you over the head with relentless, pounding-urgency filmmaking designed to reflect the intensity of the lives of homeless heroin addicts racing for the next score. Sean Price Williams’ grainy, gray-hazed, and gritty cinematography of the ratty streets, chill-outs, and flops of their living and shooting-up arrangements complete the portraits of the protagonists: addled, death-laced junkies Harley (Arielle Holmes) and her “soul-mate,” sometime-lover Ilya  (Caleb Landry Jones). Once they are sated they go about their business co-mingling with fellow addict,s and making plans for the next score (selling flotsam and jetsam, panhandling, stealing, generally “getting over”). Theirs is a tenuous worse-than-concrete-jungle existence that moves from moment to moment dictated by the amount of heroin in their bodies.

Harley and Ilya are in love and war with each other throughout the film, though what we see is the sporadic togetherness and “ins” and “outs” of their relationship. Harley is obsessed with Ilya, who claims to be be emotionally devastated because her addiction controls her more than her ability to be faithful to him. She has sex for for money and the heroin or flop that dealers and others offer her, whom she comes to depend on. Though Ilya most probably understands why the sex is necessary, he uses the fact as an excuse to physically and verbally punish Harley.

Caleb Landry Jones and Arielle Holmes in 'Heaven Knows What,' directed by Benny and Josh Safdie. Photo from the film.
Caleb Landry Jones and Arielle Holmes in ‘Heaven Knows What,’ directed by Benny and Josh Safdie. Photo from the film.

Played by an unrecognizable, tightly wound Caleb Jones Landry, Ilya is incapable of self-control or the self-awareness that would allow him to empathize with others and stretch beyond his body’s physical and emotional rages. To redeem herself and demonstrate her sorrow in hurting Ilya, Harley offers to kill herself for him. In these initial scenes, in which she pleads for forgiveness in the New York Public Library (some shots are with long telephoto lenses and these shots are mixed in with cuts to tight close-ups), the Safdie brothers introduce us to these harrowing individuals. When we discover that Harley is willing to (literally) sacrifice herself to make him happy, we are stunned at his callous disregard and encouragement of her suicide. Likewise, we are amazed at her willingness to victimize herself to please him and gain his forgiveness. Immediately, we get the picture and it is an ugly one, resplendent of all the derangement and soul sickness of the world. We know little good will come from the relationship of these two; it will be a downhill slide into oblivion or worse.

As the relationship echoes in and out of the film (Harley and Ilya are separated from each other in part of the film, then come back together), we begin to understand that this is the “way” between them, her “mad” kind of love for him. Ironically, it is the most tragic of sadism and masochism twisted in self-destruction that passes itself off as self- salvation and care; nevertheless, what they demonstrate is the height of selfishness and manipulation of each other. The stickiness of the webs that the couple has spun to cocoon each other and feed is so “out there” yet paradoxically in your face, that its negation of human feeling can be missed, especially if one believes Harley’s admissions of love for Ilya and his for her after she returns from her psychiatric stay and reunites with him until they fight ferociously and separate again.

We don’t necessarily need to know the how and why of this couple, their background or how they achieved their devolved state. Nor do the Safdie brothers bring us into the inner sanctum to comprehend the minds of this addict tribe the couple sometimes “hangs with,” (one of whom is played by Necro, who turns in a fine performance). Nor is there any explanation given for why they are addicted to heroin and not something else. Would it matter?

This is a film about how street addicts survive the next hour of their lives; it is especially about Harley’s relationship to heroin and how she manipulates her situation to get it, even manipulating her self-perception in the process. In the cinematography, fast paced editing, jarring music by Japanese musician Isao Tomita, and intimate close ups of Harley’s heavy-lidded lilting state we “get”  what is driving her panicked all-consuming, and insistent behavior and it is a tragedy. The overarching intent of the feature is to make us feel as close as possible to her, though we cannot identify from our middle class experience, the destructive frenzy of the street addicts’ world and the impossibility of maintaining any relationships with others that are not predicated on worshiping the golden calf of heroin.

(L to R): Kent Jones, moderator of the Press Conference, Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie. Photo by Carole Di Tosti
(L to R): Kent Jones, moderator of the Press Conference on ‘Heaven Knows What’, Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

The high pitched vibrancy of the frenetic music (an electronic synthesizing of Debussy’s music), sings the blood fever of Harley’s cravings for Ilya and heroin. All of what the Safdie brothers have brought together reveals what those physical and mental impulses command the addicts to do and to be. At bottom and by the end of the film we understand that “their love” is a desperation for death. We also understand that as long as these two are alive, they will dance their dance of addiction and play the games of threat, sex, violence and psychotic need because it fills the time and Harley, especially, has come to depend on this nihilism from Ilya as much as she depends on the heroin. It is a “way of being,” if not a way of becoming and the Safdies suggest by the film’s end that Harley with or without Ilya will continue to manipulate predators using sex and anything at her disposal to score; that is what she perceives is her life’s work.

In a press conference after the screening, the Safdies shared the inspiration for the film and its evolution from the streets of New York in the Diamond District which was where they met Arielle Holmes, who they fittingly cast as Harley in the film and who was the incarnation of her self as the real life, homeless, street heroin addict. Through a series of meetings and appointments lost and kept (she was in Bellevue after a suicide attempt), eventually, the brothers worked with Arielle to write down jottings of her struggles on the streets in a memoir upon which the script (written by Ronald Bronstein and Joshua Safdie), was based.

They cast her because she was “a natural,” and because she was beautiful and most probably both were a little in love with Arielle, her Galatea to their Pygmalion. After constructing an ending which Arielle hated, it was back to the drawing board of reality as they collaborated with her. What they devised was authentic and realistic and applied to Arielle’s perceptions about addiction which is that it is “boring,” cyclical and incredibly redundant. Addicts force themselves to live through the same survival circumstances daily in a tiresome and lethargic redundancy; they are the proverbial rats in a wheel running to nowhere and they can’t stop because stopping means horrific pain. The stress is incredible. The only choices are to “delete,” “continue” or “rehab,”  and every “delete whether planned or not is an unconscious death wish. In keeping with the tropes of running and denial, the Safdies ended the film as a continuance with sequences that are surprising and sad; they incorporate all the addicts’ choices.

Directors of 'Heaven Can Wair' Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie. Photo by Carole Di Tosti
Directors of ‘Heaven Knows What,’ Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie. Photo by Carole Di Tosti

The film will not resonate easily with certain audiences, but those who see it cannot help but appreciate the Safdies apt stylistic cinematic choices and raw, exposed nerve wired into this film. As a current view into the cultural nether worlds of  street addiction, it is tough and unsympathetic. The brothers’ impulses to follow their intuition and make this film are all the more amazing when one considers that addicts like Harley and Ilya often end up unable to focus, distracted beyond belief until they turn up in some hole, dead. The fact that indeed, some are able to go into rehabilitation and turn away from the strain of addiction drudgery and battered lifestyle of scrounging and foraging can only be looked at as the inherent spiritual hope that a “better day is coming.”

The “sun” did indeed come out and “break into a new day” for Arielle Holmes. Whether this is totally a work of the Safdies is unclear. But surely their influence and this creative project empowered her to become both a quasi-journalist and memoirist of her own addiction (though the film is a fictional work based on her truth).  Arielle’s situation has completely changed and she has been through rehabilitation and become a new person. When she is able to look at the film, she barely recognizes herself and her obsessive love for “Ilya” (not his name), and heroin. In viewing this “other” individual, she has refracted that image and turned it into who she is. She, more than most, calculates the horrors of how we become someone unrecognizable under any chemical dependence or in what we may ingest or put in our bodies, whether the drugs are over-the-counter legal, prescription, controlled substances or illegal. The chemicals and toxins take over transforming mind and being. Only through healing and wellness can we regain or discover the individuals we are and the people we perceive ourselves to be. Holmes was blessed to have met up with the Safdies.

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About Carole Di Tosti

Carole Di Tosti, Ph.D. is a published writer, novelist and poet. She authors three blogs: The Fat and the Skinny, All Along the NYC Skyline, A Christian Apologists' Sonnets. She contributed articles for Technorati on various trending topics. She guest writes for other blogs. She covers NYC trending events and writes articles promoting advocacy. She was a former English Instructor. Her published dissertation is referenced in three books, two by Margo Ely.

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