The times may have changed, but the heroin subculture of New York’s Upper West Side remains largely the same to judge by Josh and Benny Safdie’s “Heaven Knows What,” which revisits much of the territory mapped by director Jerry Schatzberg in 1971’s stark junkies-in-love drama “The Panic in Needle Park,” and finds it occupied by a new generation of addict drifter-dreamers spiraling toward oblivion. Far from a conventional “drug movie,” the Safdies’ third narrative feature tackles more overtly dramatic subject matter than the kleptomania romantic comedy “The Pleasure of Being Robbed” and the seriocomic family chronicle “Daddy Longlegs,” but with the same sharp sense of anxious characters catching as catch can on the unforgiving city streets. While the film’s unpredictable narrative rhythms and desire to jar audiences from their comfort zones will limit its exposure, “Heaven” feels like a sizable step forward for these scrappy, fiercely independent filmmakers.
“Heaven Knows What” grew out of the Safdies’ discovery (while researching another film project) of Arielle Holmes, a then-homeless 19-year-old addict engulfed in a violently unstable relationship with her boyfriend, Ilya. After encouraging Holmes to put her story down on paper, the Safdies began to conceive of a film in which Holmes would play a version of herself, surrounded by a mix of professional actors and other actual street people. (The screenplay, credited to Josh Safdie and “Daddy Longlegs” star Ronald Bronstein, cites Holmes’ as-yet-unpublished novel, “Mad Love in New York City,” as its source.) It’s a risky strategy that ends up paying handsome rewards, thanks to Holmes’ raw, unvarnished charisma and her piercing, heavy-lidded brown eyes that hold the camera in a trance. Holmes may not have the polished technique of a formally trained actress, but she has an innate capacity for drama, and whether or not she can go on to play roles further removed from her own experience, she’s electrifying in this one.
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As in their previous films, the Safdies favor a fast, forward-moving narrative that doesn’t hold the viewer’s hand or wait for us to catch up. “Heaven” thrusts us into its world in medias res, with Harley (Holmes) and Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones) in the throes of passion and, moments later, the aftermath of a bust-up. We grasp that this is par for the course where these characters are concerned, each forever upping the ante on their shared melodrama. A tall, gaunt, spectral figure with a tangle of dark hair and an air of rock-star dissolution, Ilya tells Harley that if she really loved him, she’d have killed herself by now, and not long after she tries to oblige, ending up in the psych ward at Bellevue (where Holmes herself spent time following her own failed suicide attempt).
When she’s released, Ilya is nowhere to be found, and for a while Harley falls in with another available warm body, Mike (Buddy Duress), an addict and dealer who seems, in the relative scheme of things, a more stable influence. Together and separately, they spend their days getting high, panhandling and otherwise trying to scrape together enough money for their next fix. Averse to Freudian psychologizing, the Safdies show greater interest in how these characters survive moment to moment than in where they come from and what brought them to this place in their lives. And for much of its running time, “Heaven Knows What” maps out a subterranean economy coexisting in plain sight with the genteel gentrification around Sherman Square (the “Needle Park” of Schatzberg’s film) and nearby Riverside Park: mail stolen from an unattended carrier bag in the hopes of cash (or at least a gift card); energy drinks lifted from one market and resold at markup to another; social-media accounts maintained from free library computers; a rent-controlled spinster who allows street kids to share her apartment for a few dollars a night (because in New York, every little bit helps).
Ilya himself remains an enigma by design, drifting in and out of Harley’s life (and the film) at random intervals, but always with the hypnotic pull of the flame to the moth. It’s an ideal role for Jones, who’s been a scene-stealing dynamo in three movies already this year (“God’s Pocket,” “Low Down” and John Boorman’s “Queen and Country”), and who gives off a feral intensity whenever he’s onscreen. His Ilya has the air of a deranged seer, and you understand what draws Harley into his toxic vortex.
“Heaven Knows What” unfolds as a series of closely observed fragments and the collision of dissonant aesthetic forces — and then, just as abruptly as they dropped us in, the Safdies pull us out. But while we’re there, moment by moment, “Heaven Knows What” feels excitingly alive. Working again with the dexterous cinematographer Sean Price Williams, the Safdies have traded the handheld 16mm celluloid look of their previous features for digital and a camera that never departs from a tripod or a dolly, including several long, complicated tracking shots that signal a new level of formal ambition. For much of the movie, they keep the camera discomfitingly close to the characters, blurring out the background and immersing us in their telescoped world. But periodically, they enlarge to extreme wide shots that make the same people seem small against the epic backdrop of Manhattan — another one of the eight million stories in the naked city. Taking a page from Wendy Carlos’ electronic reorchestrations of Beethoven for “A Clockwork Orange” (another troubled youth movie, if you will), the “Heaven” soundtrack makes extensive use of Japanese musician Isao Tomita’s intriguing synth arrangements of Debussy.