The mangy hell of heroin addiction is explored in the new film Heaven Knows What, from moviemaking brothers Ben and Joshua Safdie. Set within the shabby, wintry streets, scruffy parks, and ugly fast-food restaurants of a desaturated and unromanticized New York City, the movie pretty much tells it like it is. A raggedy group of junkies shoot up in public bathrooms, cadge money from strangers, nod off on sidewalks, shoplift energy shots and crash in the crappy apartments of friends. They talk about scoring dope, they score the dope, they argue over sharing the dope, they shoot the dope, they get up in the morning and start all over again.
They seem like dead people, shuffling around in barely livable shells of skin and bones and thrift-store clothing. By the end of the picture’s 94 minutes, you might feel dead too.
Heaven Knows What was inspired by a book written by Arielle Holmes, a former addict who stars as Harley, the young woman at the center of the film who stands out for no reason other than the Safdies chose to focus their camera on her. She has no dreams or hopes unique to the circle of junkies she hangs out with. She isn’t the least bit sympathetic or even interesting as a character. Her actions are the same as her friends (see above). She lives a life of utter nullity.
The directors can be commended for depicting, with gutter-view realism, the self-destructive effects of heroin’s scourge, but they offer no reason whatsoever for us to care about these victims. I’m sure they all have a history, perhaps families who once loved them, a few kernels of will power to get off the junk and back to a meaningful life, but the Safdies offer no evidence of this. Unlike the medicinal jolt heroin gives addicts to keep them going, we get nothing. An electronic science fiction score pulses during a few of the scenes, suggesting the alien universe the junkies exist in, but it's as close as the movie comes to framing a context from which to understand their lives.
A few other films have mapped the addict's world with more cinematic flair and narrative verve; films that Heaven Knows What apes superficially. You can see echoes of the stark dramatics of The Panic in Needle Park and Christiane F. in the film’s washed-out palette and coarse natural street sounds. A raw 2005 video diary called Dope Sick Love offered at least a sense that the two lovers at the center of their ravaged world truly cared for each other (the movie even had a sense of humor), but the Safdies — exhibiting an almost pretentious distrust in human feeling — only nod to that couple’s grueling cycle of existence.
There is the briefest hint of a third act redemption as Arielle and a friend board a bus to New Jersey in an undefined attempt to … do what exactly? He ditches her on the way, only to meet a hideously cruel end, and she winds up right back where she apparently belongs. It’s the kind of ending — a sort of jab at profundity — the brothers have tried before. It fell flat in their documentary Lenny Cooke, but yielded a far more engaging and wistful result in their best film to date, Daddy Longlegs. In Heaven Knows What, the ending, like the movie’s beginning and middle, only leaves you with a sense of myopic and ongoing despair.
This review first appeared on The Restless Critic blog.