Ben and Josh Safdie’s Heaven Knows What was initially supposed to be an entirely different being – but after meeting Arielle Holmes during their initial research they convinced her to write a book about her life, her drug addiction and her experience of living rough. The book, Mad Love in New York City, was then adapted into the following, by the Safdies. Films like Heaven Knows What don’t come along very often. From the offset, the directors are eager to drop you right in amongst the film’s characters. Holmes stars here in an autobiographical role alongside Caleb Landry Jones who first caught my eye in God’s Pocket but who’s been doing understated things on the big screen for several years. Harley (Holmes) lives for her next high. We spend a lot of time watching her walk and run up and down streets. She is poisoned by drugs, alcohol and her all-consuming romance with Ilya (Landry Jones). When Harley is released from a psychiatric hospital, the potential of a fresh start lies before her. We join her as she sinks back into a world controlled by drug dependence; a world where everyone is selfish and nobody’s ever thinking straight. A deeply sensual score accompanies the stark, brash visuals in a film which captures the same horror found in older gems such as The Panic in Needle Park.
Both the film’s opening titles and end credits appear over images of the film’s characters still in motion. The film-makers are eager for you to acknowledge that life went on long before and will continue to go on long after the time you spend in the company of these struggling individuals. There is no direct and immediate entry or exit to these types of livelihoods – the lasting impression left upon me personally by Heaven Knows What. Holmes is a wonder; her first hand experiences clearly enhancing her subtlety and intensity as a first time actress. This is a deeply unsettling movie, one that creeps under the skin as if through the character’s syringes. Potent and powerful, Heaven Knows What is a relentless portrayal of survival on the sharpest edges of society. Everything is unpredictable and there is no knowing what will come next – in these ways, we are forced to experience day to day life for the individuals we’re following. I imagine that Heaven Knows What is the type of film Harmony Korine wishes he was capable of making. There’s spirituality here, amongst the dirty sheets and under the dirty fingernails. Each new camera angle and technique seems to refresh this grubby, gritty tale of love in the gutters of the big apple.
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