By Don Simpson | May 29, 2015
Directors: Ben Safdie, Joshua Safdie
Writers: Joshua Safdie, Ronald Bronstein
Starring: Arielle Holmes, Caleb Landry Jones, Buddy Duress, Ron Braunstein, Buddy Duress, Eleonore Hendricks, Yuri Pleskun
Based on Arielle Holmes’ memoir, “Mad Love in New York City,” Ben and Joshua Safdie’s Heaven Knows What is an unflinchingly realistic tale of a homeless heroin junky, Harley (Arielle Holmes). Embodied with uncompromising authenticity by Holmes, the utterly harrowing Heaven Knows What showcases the despair and desperation of addiction. Harley meanders the streets of New York City in constant search of her next fix, while endlessly obsessing over her highly — mind the pun — manipulative boyfriend, Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones). As it turns out, love is even more of a hopeless addiction for Harley than drugs.
Captured by Sean Price Williams’ uncompromisingly intimate lensing, Heaven Knows What is one of those extremely rare films that feels excruciatingly real while being transcendentally cinematic. Isao Tomita’s pulsating ambient score and Williams’ impeccable framing establishes a visually poetic sensibility that flows along with a lucidly Kerouacian rhythm. But despite the film’s engaging stylistic flourishes, the Safdie brothers refuse to glamorize Harley’s lifestyle — as most Hollywood heroin films are prone to do — nor do they preach or moralize. Instead, Heaven Knows What is a fully immersive character study that captures the unbridled panic within the gritty urban landscape of this cerebrally cinematic needle park.
The Safdie brothers practically luxuriate in the hopelessness of Harley’s Sisyphean situation as she is seemingly chained to her destiny. Holmes’ uncompromising performance captures an urban heroin junkie at her most vulnerable, while Caleb Landry Jones plays one of the most gratingly disdainful villains of recent cinematic history. Heaven Knows What certainly is not enjoyable, but it is one hell of an experience (hell being the operative word). This is by far the most realistic depiction of heroin addiction ever committed to “celluloid.”