Someone on IMDB called Heaven Knows What an “incomprehensible mess.” But a junkie’s life IS “an incomprehensible mess,” right? The life of a drug addict does not proceed in a linear way. Days do not make sense the way they make sense for people who are sober and have other obligations besides shooting up. The whole point of Heaven Knows What, co-directed by Ben and Joshua Safdie, is to show the “incomprehensible mess” of the lives of New York junkies, as seen from the claustrophobic bell-jar inside.
The junkie drama is a cliche at this point, and is the main barrier to even wanting to SEE the film. My God, enough with the heroin addict living on the streets storyline. As I said in my review for Animals, another recent heroin drama that came out at around the same time as Heaven Knows What (and I wish I had seen it then so I could have used it as comparison): Drug addicts are boring. They don’t have multiple interests. They only have one. And it proceeds in the same way for everyone. But Heaven Knows What has a lot of things going for it, things that make it unique.
First, it’s based on the writings of one Arielle Holmes, who also stars in the film, as herself, presumably. The Safdies were doing research for another film, roaming the subways and parks of New York City, doing “street casting” and they saw a petite blonde near a turnstile and assumed she was a Russian diamond worker. She looked the part. And she had “something” they found intriguing so they went to talk to her. Turns out, she was not a Russian diamond worker at all, but a homeless junkie who hailed originally from New Jersey. They took her out for coffee, they wanted to know about her life. In the making-of featurette included with the DVD, Arielle Holmes says, “They were infatuated with something about me.” That infatuation led to the Safdies asking her to write down her experiences and send it to them. They told her it could be anything, write down what happens to you in a 24 hour period, write anything. Holmes would plant herself at various Apple stores, and write it out there. And so Heaven Knows What began to take shape. Based entirely on Arielle Holmes’ writing, Heaven Knows What is filled with non-professional actors, some of whom are Arielle’s real-life junkie friends. The people in the film give Heaven Knows What a verisimilitude that other drug dramas, inhabited by actors we’re all familiar with who have “uglied up” for the role, lack. In Heaven Knows What, the characters sit at White Castle, or Dunkin Donuts, arguing, talking, telling stories, or they lie around in the park on a cold day sharing a bottle, and the faces are the faces of homelessness, drug addiction. It’s an unmistakeable look: wind-burned faces, grey hardened hands, terrible teeth, a ferocious involvement in the NOW. If you’re a New Yorker you’ll recognize it. You’ve walked by these people. You’ve thrown a couple coins in their paper cups. Or, you’ve crossed the street to avoid their screaming arguments on the sidewalk. None of it feels like acting, because it really isn’t acting.
Secondly, Heaven Knows What does not use the familiar trope of someone going on a downward spiral. Or someone starting out clean, then trying drugs for the first time, and the next thing you know she’s a hooker. (Panic in Needle Park, for example.) While that type of story is meant to be a cautionary tale, it is also a romanticization of the reality. Heaven Knows What launches you into the middle of the group, and it never leaves that group. Characters come and go, alliances form and then shatter, for no real reason that is comprehensible to anyone who is sober, but it makes sense in the world of Heaven Knows What. It’s a world where everyone uses everyone else. It’s part of the life. Everyone needs to get high, and everyone will do what it takes to get that need met. That’s all that matters in any given moment. (This is why drug addict stories can be so boring.) Harley (Arielle Holmes) has no backstory. When we meet her, and we do immediately, she is so fully in “the life” that there is no past and no future. This is true for every character. Parents aren’t mentioned. Nobody has any memories of “the time before.” There are no social workers who check up on people. The characters are not “in the system” in any whatsoever. Everything is off the grid. And it stays off the grid. The grid is only there to be exploited and stolen from.
And so, by full immersion into the nonstop hustle that makes up the New York junkie’s life, Heaven Knows What is confusing, depressing, stressful: There’s no “stand-in” for the healthy sober world, no onlooker, no participant who hasn’t been living that life for years. None of the characters express any hope that there might be something else. It’s just not a factor in their conceptions of their lives.
Harley is madly in love with the sinister narcissistic Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones, the only professional actor in the cast). She is so in love with him that when he rejects her she threatens to kill herself. That threat then becomes a dare. She declares she will kill herself to show how much she loves him. He goads her on to do it. These confrontations take place first in a public library, where the group goes to get out of the cold and also use the computers (if you frequent NYPLs, you know this is a realistic depiction of the atmosphere). Then it moves out into the freezing parks of the neighborhood in full sunlight. Harley slashes her wrists and ends up in a psych ward. Once back out on the streets, wrist bandaged up, the round of her life begins again. Ilya recedes for a while, then returns. Mike then rises. Mike is played by Buddy Duress, a non-professional actor who gives an extraordinary memorable performance. Duress has been a drug dealer all his life, and got out of Riker’s Island just 4 days before shooting started. (It wasn’t his first time in Riker’s either.) Mike and Harley pair up in a “let’s get through the day together” kind of way. Mike is chatty, repetitive, extroverted, and resourceful. But then – like clockwork – the alliance falls apart.
One of the things Heaven Knows What really captures is just how crazy all of this seems to anyone outside it. (I realize many people have a problem with that word. I don’t. I use it deliberately, because it feels the most accurate, with all its connotations of madness, mental chaos, insensibility, and “lost to the world” implications) It’s one of those things where you can imagine one of these characters getting themselves together enough to step out of that world, even slightly: get into rehab, live in a halfway house, get a part-time job, even leave New York for whatever reason – anything where there is enough distance from the environment so they can SEE it, and realizing: “Was that me screaming in public, chasing someone down the sidewalk because he stole the hat I dug out of the trash? How did THAT happen?” In other words: within the context of Heaven Knows What, that kind of behavior is not unexpected, no one even blinks an eye. But if you take one step back, it would blow your mind how out of control and frightening it all seems. (It’s kind of how I remember the spring/summer of 2009. I wasn’t a drug addict but I was so engulfed in my illness that I look back and find myself thinking, totally uncomprehendingly: “Wait … did I actually hyperventilate at that Staples store because I couldn’t figure out what boxes to buy? That can’t be right, can it? There has to have been more to it. Did I actually make a scene like that in a public place?” Well, yes. I did. And it wasn’t the only one. There were similar scenes: on a Virgin flight from LA to NYC, in Port Authority, on train platforms, in the office where I was working. There was a big public scene a day. I’m mortified now, but it all made 100% sense at the time. And I am sure the Staples workers, who were very patient, looked at one another when I left the store like, “Holy fuck”, and maybe even made a little “She’s cuckoo in the head” gesture after I was gone, and they would not have been wrong, although it’s painful to think about.)
The style of Heaven Knows What is striking. It’s documentary, cinema verite stuff, and the cameras sometimes seem to have been placed across the street, capturing the characters’ arguments from a distance. It’s effective because the style places them in the outside world, with New Yorkers passing by, never looking over. Sometimes the camera goes in close close to the various faces, plunging you into the belljar of their individual experiences. Characters emerge. You can see the essence of them, the essence not destroyed by drugs. Everyone is ruled by addiction, and addiction is predictable, but there are scenes between Harley and Mike, Harley and one of the other drug dealers, even Harley and Ilya, where you can see who they are, who they always have been, before drugs took over the #1 spot in their lives. Sean Price Williams was the cinematographer and he is so talented. A young man, his list of credits is truly impressive, and he shot some of the best-looking films in recent years (including the recent Christmas, Again, which I reviewed for Ebert, and loved). He also shot Queen of Earth, another 2015 film I adored, with a classical style interspersed with hallucinatory subjectivity – a gorgeous and terrifying mix.
Heaven Knows What comes to no conclusions. It is not a redemption tale. It does not follow the normal rules for addiction stories. Like the characters, it is completely off the grid.