Heaven Knows What is a transgressive film by way of its depiction of bodies and bodily harm; Ben and Joshua Safdie, who both helm the direction, never shy away from the film’s more visceral or intense scenes. The camera angle preferred here is the close-up, and the result is that the harmful drug use, and the physical abuse of characters from their fellow addicts is made to be as vile to watch as it is for the characters to perform.
The film is about Harley (Arielle Holmes) a homeless girl addicted to heroin. At first, Harley hangs around her boyfriend Illya (Caleb Landry Jones), who is, for reasons we don’t know, only dismissive of her. Illya tells off Harley that he’ll happy once she kills herself and so she does or rather attempts to by cutting her wrist open. Illya runs away but thankfully for Harley, a nearby friend calls the ambulance.
From there, Harley begins to hang around with Mike (Buddy Duress), a close friend, fellow addict, and most importantly, heroin dealer. The rest of the film is then spent on Harley’s everyday routine: from begging on the street for money, to stealing, and finally, buying and using heroin: she needs at least four bags a day—two in the morning and two at night.
Through its cinematography, Heaven Knows What is a brutally honest film in its depiction of drug abuse. The film takes place in Manhattan, and the city is never seen without grime. The actors too are decked out in cheap clothing filled with holes and strewn with dirt. Their eyes are haggard, their bodies emaciated and poked with holes from syringes. In essence, the aesthetics of the film help build an atmosphere that’s reflective of the harsh reality of the character’s lives.
I think it’s that element of harshness that the Safdie siblings are interested in, and that’s why the world of Heaven Knows What is depicted in such a gritty manner and then filmed so unflinchingly. On my part then, there’s no questioning that the visual elements of Heaven Knows What are crafted and used well. But what about the film thematically: does it really boil down to a complex depiction yet simple message that drugs are bad? I don’t think so and if it did, the story surrounding the film is a bit more complex than that.
To clarify, the story of Heaven Knows What is based on the real-life of Arielle Holmes who the Safdie siblings found on the streets of New York City panhandling. They asked her to write her story and then developed that memoir into the film’s script. Because it’s based on Holmes’ memoir, Heaven Knows What can be partly seen as not only a fictional film but also a biography. From the manner of being a biography then, another question arises: if the film is devoted to depicting the life of someone, does it need a bigger point? By comparison, on a storytelling level, Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) seems to be fine as a fictional depiction of Truffaut’s life as a child.
Even if Heaven Knows What was simply about the harshness of drug abuse then, there still wouldn’t be anything wrong with that; the visual aspects of the film already make it unique enough. The script is not as simple as being about addiction to drugs however. A better analysis is that the film is about addiction itself, specifically, addiction as a form of survival.
Arielle spends her time around two people in the film: Ilya, who she is in love with, and Mike who supplies her heroin and a place to sleep—for a fee of course. What’s notable about the time that Arielle spends with Illya is that it’s free of the heroin abuse; the drug abuse isn’t gone completely—Ilya can be seen drinking Dayquil as if it were water. What the Safdies do focus on when filming Arielle and Ilya is not the drug abuse but rather the love between the two. This is explicitly seen in a scene later on where the two are making love on the streets, and the technique used here is the long-take which places an emphasis on the subjects of the frame by their prolonged appearance.
Parallel to Arielle’s scenes with Ilya, her time spent with Mike is explicitly defined by her abuse of heroin. Most notably, one scene which depicts Arielle and Mike in a romantic embrace is also one where Ilya interrupts the two by his appearance. It’s as if the two worlds of love and heroin abuse that Arielle occupies cannot exist in tandem; it’s one or the other.
What’s similar between the two is the physical and emotional pain that each inflict on Arielle. Despite the pain, however, Arielle still hungers for either her four bags of heroin or for Ilya: she desperately needs them.