Josh and Benny Safdie’s explosive Heaven Knows What opens with the faces of two young junkies—Harley (Arielle Holmes) and the hooded Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones, wearing long, Tommy Wiseau-like dark hair)—huddled together in the frame. Moments later, Ilya pleads for Harley’s death—“If you love me, you would’ve killed yourself by now,” he tells her—and she attempts to oblige by digging a razor into her left wrist. This is the world of Jerry Schatzberg’s The Panic in Needle Park, 40 years later, and part of the shock of the Safdies’ film is that the particulars of its heroin subculture so closely resemble those of Schatzberg’s. In Panic, a gum-chewing Al Pacino swiped a TV set from a parked van to impress Kitty Winn (and to pawn the thing off for smack money); in Heaven Knows What, Harley and Ilya steal boxes of convenience-store energy drinks, and then sell them to newsstands for easy cash. The cycle is the same, even if the contemporary setting of Heaven means that these street-tenants of the Upper West Side now lug around Duane Reade bags and socialize in Dunkin’ Donuts and White Castle, or on the cold sidewalks outside a Barnes & Noble.
The Safdies stumbled into this project. While doing research for a film set in New York’s diamond district, Josh met Holmes on a subway and struck up a conversation. A while later, he learned the full extent of her situation—homeless, an addict, stuck in a destructive relationship—and commissioned her to write about her life. This unpublished memoir, Mad Love in New York City, then served as the source material for Heaven, with Josh and Frownland director Ronald Bronstein adapting the material for the screen. Bronstein, who also co-edited Heaven with Benny, was the kinetic star of the Safdies’ autobiographical Daddy Longlegs, which, in its gutsy naturalism, heated domestic quarrels, and furious handheld camerawork, positioned the brothers as heirs to John Cassavetes. But they’ve altered their approach considerably, veering away from material inspired by their own lives: their follow-up feature to Daddy Longlegs was a deceptively complex documentary, Lenny Cooke, about a former high-school basketball star whose career never recovered from his premature leap into the NBA Draft.
Heaven, too, represents a step away from autobiography, although the nature of Holmes’s dangerous lifestyle—screaming matches on the street, begging for MetroCard swipes at subway stations, urgent swigs of whiskey and Coke—makes her an ideal subject for the Safdies’ immediate approach to city filmmaking. Like Schatzberg, the Safdies and their gifted cinematographer, Sean Price Williams (Listen Up Philip), rely on long lenses and diligent panning to suggest the scattered and hectic feeling of a life lived on the streets. (In a post-screening NYFF press conference, Josh evocatively described the film as an “opera of long lens.”) Heaven is often simply about just watching stressed-out characters navigate the geography of a crowded, congested city. Adding pressure to this atmosphere is the unusual synth soundtrack, which consists of the Japanese composer Isao Tomita’s violent, oppressive renditions of the work of Claude Debussy. Together, the images and the sounds turn Harley’s reality into a pulverizing grind from which escape is barely even a distant thought.