Knows What, from new festival favourite indie filmmaking duo Ben and Joshua Safdie, is a fictionalised version of Mad Love in New York City – a memoir written by heroin-addicted, then homeless, Arielle Holmes. On meeting Holmes in Manhattan backwaters, the pair resolved to take her extraordinary story to the screen: now the
real-life Arielle Holmes adopts the role of her own avatar 'Haylie' in a
magnetic, and often unwatchable performance.
Heaven Knows What stalks the beautiful, volatile and self-abusive Haylie through the
streets and shelters of New York, begging and stealing her way to the next fix. After her dramatic break-up with the equally addicted 'Ilya' (played by the only professional actor in the film, Caleb Landry Jones) Haylie becomes increasingly desperate for forgiveness, escaping into the arms of her dope – and Mike, another junkie friend and dealer.
If you can’t handle the film's first five minutes, you're unlikely to find much relief the subsequent ninety – brief yet unrelenting, they're rife with acts of explicit violence and gory self-abuse. Heaven Knows What is like being thrust into the pits of hell – so grisly from start to finish that the Safdie brothers have managed to make Requiem for a Dream feel like a rom-com.
The raving camerawork gives the film a fierce insistence, as urgent synth, electronica and Death Metal spasmodically
mount scenes –then suddenly halt in an eerie silence that makes the whole thing feel like a drug-fuelled hallucination. We wince behind hands at horrors encircling its at
once innocent and manipulative heroin-addicted anti-heroine. Holmes is (unsurprisingly perhaps) utterly convincing as Haylie, and Landry Jones puts in his cruellest performance yet as Ilya, the violent king of the streets.
It's in the authenticity of its perspective that makes Heaven Knows What so impressive: it drags its viewers unapologetically down into the heart of New York's underbelly, through the needle-scattered alleys and side-streets that otherwise warrant less than a fleeting glance. It contextualises the ostensibly mad ravings of disaffected down-and-outs. But retrospectively, it's the truth behind the fiction that is the most affecting: the fate of real-life characters mimicking those in the film, and making Heaven Knows What more darkly prophetic than the Safdies could have predicted.
A powerful viewing experience, but by no means a
pleasant one, Heaven Knows What is a film of rare and disturbing originality. Watch with caution, but watch.
|What||Heaven Knows What review|
|Where||Various Locations | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Leicester Square (underground)|
29 Apr 16 – 01 Sep 16, Times vary for each event
|Price||£Prices vary by cinema|