' ' Cinema Romantico: Heaven Knows What

Monday, June 29, 2015

Heaven Knows What

The prolonged pre-credits sequence of “Heaven Knows What”, directed by the Brothers Safdie (Ben & Joshua) tracks a distraught heroin addict, Harley (Arielle Holmes), as she threatens to commit suicide. She buys razor blades. She writes a goodbye note. Still, her junkie paramour, Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), won’t take her seriously. It’s fairly obvious this suicidal threat is a regular occurrence. He tears up her goodbye note. She tries to pen another one. He actively taunts her, knowing she won’t do it. But then, she does. The camera, like a jittery NYC street refugee peering over Ilya’s shoulder, gets in there as close as can be, and she puts that razor blade to her wrist and she cuts. Blood spews. It’s horrific. In another film this might have elicited the “Five Days Earlier” flashback. Not here. This is happening right now, before our very eyes, no before and no after. This film is purely the present.

That’s why we enter the film already in progress. What has brought Harley and Ilya to this life of homelessness and heroin is never explicated; it’s never suggested. The notion of what their respective pasts have wrought is of no consideration. They are dependent on their drugs, yes, but they are also dependent on each other, and on so many others. In fact, they spend much of the film apart as “Heaven Knows What” introduces a community of self-sufficient – in their own way – vagrant addicts. They argue constantly and swear incessantly, they issue threats and feign violence, though occasionally it spills over into the real thing, yet a very genuine screwed-up sorta love emerges. After her suicide attempt, Harley falls in with Mike (Buddy Duress), a crap talker who could have been a Goldman Sachs bro in another life, I reckon. He and she are more like verbal sparring partners than friends, yet they nonetheless help each other along. It’s a commune, really, whose common life centers entirely around scoring smack.

If heroin addiction is all about getting that fix, then that’s all “Heaven Knows What” is about – getting that fix. That’s the narrative. There’s some waxing, briefly, about the meaning of “real love”, but their stoned voices intentionally make it sound more like kids talking about cartoons. These characters don’t exist to be high; they exist to get high, and “Heaven Knows What” damn well knows the difference. There are no moments here of that tripped up bliss you so often see in drug movies. The closest it gets happens early, and even that includes a shot of Harley angrily screaming about nothing in particular. Joy is in short supply. This is un-romanticized hard-living, underscored by the camera work, which is street level handheld, perhaps out of necessity, but queasy and uninviting. They don’t want to invite you. They seek to push you away. This life, kids, isn’t for you. The only character who seeks to try and help anyone out of this virtual gutter, a big bear of a ball cap wearing dude, is told so often to go away, he finally does. He just walks the other way and right out of the movie.

This isn’t the escapades of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” or even the stomach-churning theatrics of “Requiem for a Dream”; this is a twenty-tens indie version of Kitty Wynn’s character in “Panic in the Needle Park” strung out and wasting away. It’s primal, powerful and, frankly, almost unwatchable. Its incessant immediacy yields intense advocacy.


Shane Slater said...

This is one helluva film. So intensely visceral, especially with that score. Haven't seen anything like it.

Nick Prigge said...

Yeah! The score! Good call. I wanted to discuss that too, but felt like I was shoehorning it in. It's so good, especially in that sequence when she's in the hospital. It felt like this spacey, other-worldly thing, like she's just totally apart from the world. It really messed me up.