Review: Heaven Knows What (dir. Josh & Benny Safdie, 2014)

“Would you forgive me if I killed myself?” is a line spoken by Harley early on in the Safdie Brothers’ 2014 feature Heaven Knows What. The line is said to Ilya on the edge of some park in New York, a man who looks as tired, cold and weathered as she does. Many things in this opening sequence set the tone firmly and fittingly for the remainder of the film: abstract character concepts such as the erratic, unstable and unwell collective states of mind and themes of self-neglect, as well as cinematic motifs which are also utilised in the Safdie’s next films Good Time and Uncut Gems. It’s a massively engaging, chaotic and emotionally turbulent scene, opening with Harley bawling and being prompted to kill herself, orchestrated to an overwhelming, consistently pulsating electronic soundtrack.

Films I refer to/potentially spoil in this article:

–         Heaven Knows What (dir. Josh and Benny Safdie, 2014)

–         Good Time (dir. Josh and Benny Safdie, 2017)

–         Uncut Gems (dir. Josh and Benny Safdie, 2019)

–         Trainspotting (dir. Danny Boyle, 1996)

There’s a strange sense of limitlessness and opportunity in the juxtaposing lack of opportunity on offer to the ensemble of characters in the film. Where a seeming lack of initiative or interest to make any major alterations within the lives of the homeless, substance-abusing protagonists comes lackadaisical freedom, a freedom to yell and fight on the streets as though nobody else exists, to wander wherever whenever and to embrace a mindset that you’re always in the right and they’re always in the wrong whilst they’re also trying to exploit or cheat you, whether “they’re” the system that landed you in this situation, others in similar positions or your closest friends. New York becomes a playground of infinite connections, places to hang out and places to score, filled to the brim with individuals living their own lives, avoiding catching eyes with you out of paranoia.

As proven in their hugely popular follow-up films, the Safdie’s utterly understand immersion and audience involvement, which they paradoxically manage to achieve with a general lack of cinematic intimacy. Throughout the entirety of the film, which is based on the true-story autobiographical retelling and also starring the author Arielle Holmes, the camera (and consequently the audience) is very rarely invasive. It’s an extremely simple but effective motif, to frequently obstruct the path of vision to the action with a half-closed door, passing and parked cars, trees, pedestrians. If anything, this detachment from the immediate zones of the characters is what grounds us as viewers. We do not inhabit the ability to move freely at different angles and motions to convey the drama differently. Instead, we look at it as we would in reality, which is from afar and stationary, fixated. The Safdie’s achieve a punk-Ken Loach effect in doing so, tackling similar societal and cultural themes and taking them underground into deeply intimate, upsetting and dark places.

Somehow, the uniquely energetic approach works wonders here. The largely electronic soundtrack works similarly to the music in Trainspotting, in which an array of upbeat, fast-paced tunes mirrors the mindsets of the addicts on screen. The concoction culminates in a sense of paranoia and agitation, and utmost occasional euphoria, each of which suitably matching Harley’s mission, which is to meet numerous other homeless contacts, strategizing her next hit, her income, a place for her to crash and so on. There is a blatant hierarchy to her homelessness, where sign-holding is an uncertain cop-out, but drug dealing is a high-risk, high-yield venture. Inevitably, you feel nothing but sorry for these characters. You can’t blame them for not actively trying to get themselves out of this situation, because it’s so dire and tragic, especially in the isolating streets of New York where the constant flow of unending, rarely-stopping-or-donating pedestrians only reinforces this loneliness. Harley’s marker-pen-scrawled plea for donations sign is polite and pitiful, but it’s hard to tell if this is a tactic or out of sheer, genuine desperation.

Heaven Knows What' Takes A Bleak Look At Heroin Addiction | New Hampshire  Public Radio
Image Credit: NHPR

One character who’s quick to be sceptical about Harley’s hard-to-read nature is a personal standout performance. Buddy Duress plays Mike so convincingly and authentically that there had to be truth to his performance. His mannerisms and quirks are breathtaking and natural, making his layered character all the more enticing to follow. Mike is like Harley; constantly in search of money and drugs and seems to exist as his own protagonist in his own world, which he has a loose vice of control over. Occasionally, he will surprise us and will drop his chest-beating, doesn’t-care-if-he-gets-the-last-word-or-not attitude, offering some sobering, blatant advice to Harley. Where every character is so unpredictable as to what their motives are behind their glazed, street-blinded expressions, Mike is the most entertaining thanks to his raw energy, fuelled from some ambiguous, undisclosed source from within.

Heaven Knows What is also the Safdie’s most affecting film to date. Where Good Time and Uncut Gems pay tribute to the devilish sense of fun amidst the chaos of criminal underbellies, Heaven Knows What is painfully realistic and deprived of the brash colours and upbeat energy of the latter examples. Thankfully, the Safdie’s understand when and where to utilise their broad skill set. There are moments in the latter half of the film that has the potential to enter these realms of being exaggeratively chaotic, but the substance takes firm control over the style. This isn’t to say that Heaven Knows What is an unattractive film; it is. It’s just appropriately and integrally acknowledged that the film isn’t a free-for-all of creative bragging; it must, to an extent and which it does, abide by the true, harrowing and dismal subject matter with respect.

Another Safdie-motif which is fantastically suited to their shady explorations into urban anti-society is the cinematic sense of surveillance. The cinematography uses the cameras as though windows into this secretive yet exposed lifestyle whilst also doubling up as police helicopter/CCTV-like, as though spying on the characters from afar. It screams street culture influence and is refreshingly handled by auteurs who have delved straight into the subject matter, working closely with the source material. As with Uncut GemsHeaven Knows What boasts multiple storylines and strands, with characters being introduced and dismissed without a second thought, maintaining a sense of ever-engaged persistence and paranoia in your head: Will that character return? Will they be angry? Are they even alive? This sense of constant activity is reinforced by the organic kinetic energy provided by unknowing pedestrians. During one explosive argument, a pedestrian hurriedly rushes around the characters, naturally contributing to the thematic progression of the scene.

Arielle Holmes shows exceptional humbleness towards the people in her life. Good or negative influences, she nobly acknowledges them as the ones that helped shape her into who she is today. A devastating ending scene reinforces this point, a crash-landing return after a traumatic journey that seems to go unnoticed, placing her back into the same trivial-yet-poignant cycle of events, the same sense of neglect, the same sense of isolation where things scarcely matter unless it affects themselves. They are not bad people though; they are not selfish or arrogant or unfair. They are victims of something much bigger, and in this collective victimhood, able to relish in their independent lifestyle.


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