Goddamn, and I thought Trainspotting was hard to watch at times. The Safdie Brother’s drug-fueled odyssey about love and drugs in New York City is one of the toughest movies I’ve ever sat down to watch as it confronts you with the grimy reality of our world we choose to ignore. There’s nothing precious in Heaven Knows What, this is a film that understands reality and sticks to the honest brutality of it, the Safdies’ are of the thought that Heaven knows nothing and only we, in this reality, can truly perceive what is going on.
In casting Arielle Holmes, the real-life subject the story is inspired by, the Safdie bros are able to tap into an unforeseen level of bona fide emotion. Heaven Knows What is the most confident film about people who have lost all meaning of independence and are entirely alien to the concept of confidence now that their life of dependency has replaced it with shamelessness. Everything about this film is raw with emotion, from the very opening scene that dares you to turn away from the screen as it offers the most horrific vision of a romance you’ve probably ever laid eyes upon. Although killing oneself for love might seem like the most romantic thing a lover could do in Romeo & Juliet, it’s horrifying to see this once Romeo and Juliet are substituted by reckless heroin-addicts. The very opening scene crescendoes with extreme tension before culminating in a horrific suicide attempt on behalf of our protagonist. The mood, style, and message of the film are conveyed from scene one which feels like a hazing initiation leading down a sinister route.
To convey such gritty realism, cinematographer Sean Price Williams avoids glamour at all costs, employing hand-held techniques and a free-roaming camera that places you in the state of anxiety Harley (Holmes) lives with. The only beauty to surface in Heaven Knows What is contained within the score that acts with a composed electric elegance and subtlety that makes each scene all the more honest and profound. Although beautiful, even the score blows up the realism of it all. The only time I believe realism is somewhat betrayed by camera and score is when these two align and tint the scene with transcendental neon hues, but whenever this occurs the Safdie’s always make sure the object of the scene pronounces such severity that these additional elements only serve as pillows in car-crash, you’re still going to end up a wreck but at least the momentary pain was somewhat relieved.
But at the heart of this all is one figure, a revelation, Arielle Holmes. Hidden talents such as these are one in a million, the fact that the Safdie’s just stumbled upon her seems incredulous, but as we realize in this film life is full of crazy events. Holmes captivates the viewer with every smirk and glance, her presence is ever-palpable and her vulnerability is intimidating. Surely that sounds like an oxymoron, but the way Holmes is able to submit herself entirely to the camera is beyond me, capturing a confident strength in her persona that her past-self had once misplaced. The supporting cast that surrounds her is also fantastic, all of them submitting themselves to the reality of the situation, but none of them demonstrating as much authenticity as Holmes does in her tour-de-force debut onto the big-screen.
Heaven Knows What is a film that will assault you and cling onto your memories undeterminably. It’s definitely a difficult film to watch, but its determination for authenticity is formidable and proves rewarding in the end. The Safdie brothers make for an amazing directing duo that’ll find new ways to torment, incite, and infiltrate our emotions for years to come. Here’s to Heaven Knows What, a drama about the concept of dependency depicting people entirely detached from reality nevertheless entirely stuck in it, here’s to the Safdie brothers making an incredible film yet equally disturbing film, here is to Arielle Holmes bursting onto the scene, to an amazing turn from Caleb Landry Jones as Ilya and to the future success of the Safdie brothers.