Movie Review: ‘HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT’ – Heroin(e) Hopelessness


Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Director: Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie
Writer: Ronald Bronstein, Joshua Safdie and Arielle Holmes (book)
Cast: Arielle Holmes, Caleb Landry Jones, Buddy Duress and Ron Braunstein

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When I worked at the now-US Bank building in downtown Los Angeles, every morning at the 6th Street crosswalk in front of the library, many of us were asked by homeless people for spare change. One morning in particular, I encountered a volatile homeless man cussing out a kind businessman for offering food instead of money. “I don’t want your [bleeping] sandwich” was screamed for all to hear as the angered homeless man slapped it out of the apologetic businessman’s hands. My instinct – as well as everyone else’s at that crosswalk – was to flee. Now before you tell me, “cool story, bro,” this is the visceral reaction that directors Josh and Benny Safdie’s HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT re-ignited. Flee. You can’t help the un-helpable. Similar to an unapologetic full-frontal assault, there’s a beguiling, raw and brave ferocity to the picture that’s deeply unnerving. However, at the same time, it feels like deliberate artifice. Though the story is taken from star Arielle Holmes’ real-life exploits on the grimy streets, it wallows in sadness and hopelessness, all whilst wandering aimlessly nowhere.

If you’re thinking this is going to be an uplifting indie about a junkie who turns her life around after a near death experience, you’d best look elsewhere. If you’re thinking you’ll see a tale about someone struggling with sobriety, think again. This is a story about an addict. Our heroine, Harley (played by Holmes) has a full blown heroin addiction and doesn’t feel the need to change for anybody – not even for Skully (Necro), the one friend who genuinely cares about her well-being. She hustles to get her most basic needs met. She survives on the cruel, cold streets of NYC, floating from one lousy relationship with Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), a boyfriend who’d rather watch her commit suicide than be with her, to another with Mike (Buddy Duress), her dealer. Promises and trust are broken for the sake of chasing the rush – a.k.a. the only thing that matters to this subset. But no one really cares, as they’re too whacked out of their minds to remember anything like monetary debts and personal agreements.

Arielle Holmes in HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT. Photo courtesy of Radius.

Arielle Holmes and Buddy Duress in HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT. Photo courtesy of Radius.

HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT has a unique perspective of big city living we hardly ever see cinematically – mostly because we go to movies for escapism, not to wallow. Admirably, the film takes a completely unromanticized look at hooked urchins who hustle on the streets alongside well-dressed Fortune 500 businessmen who hustle in skyscrapers. Although it’s never stated, directors Josh and Benny Safdie almost manage to connect the two extremes. Isao Tomita’s score, full of fuzzy-synth variations on Debussy’s classical works, is deliciously creepy, unnerving and off balance. It might be better suited to a horror or Kubrick film, but is ingeniously married to this picture’s operatic aesthetic. At times, it feels pressing and urgent. Other times, it stands in brilliant juxtaposition. The Safdies’ utilization of “Claire de Lune” contrasts a rambling Mike recounting his latest junkie dramatics to Harley.

What’s utterly fascinating is how the filmmakers shoot this cinéma vérité as undetected as possible. Long lens shots look and feel reminiscent of 70’s cinema. “Extras,” if you can even call them that, walk on by without any notice of the escalating dramatics. It’s subtle commentary inserted into the otherwise obvious and unflinching gritty realness. Our society marginalizes these people, but, sorry not sorry – it’s easy to see why. They are a combustible, lawless and dangerous bunch who aren’t just hurting themselves whilst carrying on like idiots. Their caustic carelessness is infuriating as it can bleed into hurting others.

But it’s not just the picture’s grim hopelessness that can turn off the audience. It’s really that nothing happens. Harley begins and ends in the same emotional head space. The script would have you believe she goes on a full circle journey, but she doesn’t change – for better or worse – throughout the entirety of the film. She stays exactly the same. There’s no character arc, therefore, finding the interest to stay tethered through some maddening instances can prove a difficult task. It can also get pretentiously provocative – like when Ilya and Harley have sex in the middle of a sidewalk next to piles of trash, and when one of the characters could really use a course in fire safety.

What does it all mean? What am I supposed to do with this information as a viewer? What now? When the cinematic journey into the seedy side of New York City is over, it can best be equated to a vapid, incoherent conversation with someone who’s high.

HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT is available today on Blu-ray/DVD.

The Blu-ray/DVD includes:

  • Deleted Scenes
  • “A Hot Two Weeks” – The Making of HEAVEN KNOWS WHAT
  • Ariel Pink Music Video

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.