Frameland Recommends: Heaven Knows What

Heaven Knows What (2014)

The first noticeable qualities of a Safdie Brothers movie is the workshop style and the distinct use of sound and music. With their latest film Uncut Gems (2019) garnering rave reviews at its Telluride Film Festival premiere and their first streamlined success in Good Time (2017) starring Robert Pattinson, I believe it’s the perfect time to look a few years prior to 2014.

I knew the Safdies were major talents when I first saw Heaven Knows What (2014), a movie I consider their best. The on-the-ground, almost documentarian, approach to examining drug abuse and homelessness in New York City is made that much more realistic with the grainy, dizzying hand-held camera work which follows the films characters like a fly buzzing around.

Starring Arielle Holmes as a homeless crack addict named Harley, the movie’s main premise is biographical of Holmes’s actual life after she ran away from her parents to live in New York City. Her character Harley’s desperation to stay with her emotionally abusive boyfriend Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), who makes it quite clear he cares more about his next dope hit than he does about her, is indicative of the necessity of companionship amidst a city which is unforgiving to its lower-class citizens.

The despair in the film is channelled through Arielle Holmes’s brilliant performance. You may say that it’s brilliant and realistic only because she actually lived it, but I would say that having to put on a re-enactment of your own trauma and experiences of helplessness is brave and an intimidating task that many actors would struggle through emotionally and physically.

The excavation of the characters’ lives in the movie is never intrusive and always maintains a sense of empathy first. While many films which depict drug abuse tend to exploit it as a way of stoking fear, the Safdie’s hit hard with realism. The movie features several shocking sequences, including a wrist-slicing scene near the beginning that elicits an almost instinctual response to pause the movie and walk around for a little bit. It’s gutting not only because of its unflinching gore but also because Harley does it in hopeless desperation of getting some attention of her boyfriend. This, and many other sequences make Heaven Knows What a difficult but worthy film of your attention.

This Recommendation article was published in September 2019