Smack the Pony

One of the better new movies of 2015 opened this past weekend, the Safdie brothers' Heaven Knows What. It is an impressive follow-up to Daddy Longlegs (AKA Go Get Some Rosemary), a film that moves them well out of the mumblecore orbit into a darker neo-realist strain. When it played last year's New York Film Festival, I wrote this in Jewish Week:

Josh and Benny Safdie have been the center of a collective of talented young filmmakers based here in New York, and their own highly variegated work has been a prominent part of the output. They dabbled in documentary most recently, but their last fiction feature, Daddy Longlegs, was memorably intense, working its way from a light-hearted family saga to something much darker and troubling. Needless to say, they should be on the radar of anyone interested in contemporary film. And with their new film Heaven Knows What they have made a great leap forward.

Heaven Knows What is a harrowing trip through a brief period in the life of a homeless junkie, played with astonishing nuance by writer Arielle Holmes. Holmes is not an actress, but the film is based on her memoir and she clearly has achieved the necessary distance to remember and recreate the hellish life she has left behind. Not, perhaps, recalled in tranquility, but certainly recalled in vivid detail. 

More than one way to get clean: Arielle Holmes in Heaven Knows What

Harley (Holmes) is madly, damningly in love with Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), a fellow addict who is only interested in his next fix. When she offers to commit suicide to prove her love, he encourages her to make good on the threat. She survives and is soon back on the streets, hanging with a motley gang of drug fiends, drunks and losers, led by dealer-user Mike (Buddy Duress, apparently a legendary street character himself). Then it’s the agonizingly repetitive life of getting high, searching for the next fix, getting high again and on and on. 

The Safdies make this material profoundly compelling. Using a visual style that echoes the quasi-neo-realist drug movies of the early ‘70s (think Panic in Needle Park but with even less gloss), but without recourse to hand-held camera, relying instead on long lenses and static set-ups that give the film a distanced, occasionally hallucinatory look, they find a striking balance that eschews both voyeurism and preaching. There are a few moments of dark humor, as in the scene in which an oddly supportive Hasid offers Harley money so that she can stay high; she replies quizzically, “I’m not Jewish or anything.”

But mostly this is a bleak world in which a recurring scene of Harley and Ilya embracing in extreme close-up is so ambiguous that one cannot tell whether they are making love or trying to strangle one another. Such is the chilling reality that the film captures so adroitly.