Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Heaven Knows What (2015)

Movies about drug addiction can only say so much about the subject before arriving at the expected conclusion of the detrimental effects of such an addiction. So it seems mightily important then that the way these stories are told take precedence over the limited range of ideas they can arrive at. It also helps if there's a love story at the center of the story, because it inevitably raises the question: is my relationship stronger with my lover or with my drug? The Safdie brothers seem to fully understand the constraints of the addiction narrative and, as their film about it indicates, are fully equipped to deal with them. 

The film, which was released last year, has a pretty neat origin story in that the brothers found an actual addict in New York, Arielle Holmes, and convinced her to write a memoir of her experiences, which then served as the basis for their film. On top of that, Holmes stars in the film as Harley, a fictionalized version of herself. The movie traces her experiences living in New York, homeless and at the mercy of both heroin and her lover, Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones, who, after this and his role in God's Pocket, shows he's one of the masters at playing unhinged creeps). 

The movie begins where a film with a more traditional structure might end, with Harley attempting suicide after Ilya's twisted taunt that if she really loved him she'd already have killed herself. While the reason Holmes initially moved to New York and got into heroin was because of Ilya, the film, after this bleak opening, becomes less a story of their relationship than a chronicle of Harley's everyday routines: traveling to Brooklyn to pick up her belongings at a homeless shelter, hanging out with other addicts, asking around for money, and of course, getting high. 

This is fairly predictable material though, depicting the kind of behavior I see on a regular basis during my daily train commute through downtown Dallas. This is a really good film though, and a lot of it has to do with the filmmaking chops of the Safdie brothers. They let their agile camera roam freely between characters, letting certain scenes breath and other times pushing into uncomfortable and unflattering handheld closeups. Given this and the fact that much of the film is about the routines of homeless survivors, it might seem that the Safdie's are taking a realist approach to telling Holmes' story. 

This is further enhanced because the dialogue is rife with stupid profanities, arguments, and banal chit-chat, and because the two actors with the most screen time, Holmes and Buddy Duress (he plays Mike, a friend Harley turns to to get away from Ilya after her attempted suicide), are extremely convincing non-professionals--all factors that help accentuate the movie's sense of authenticity. The only professional actor in the film is Jones, who gives the film's most actorly performance, but isn't really in the movie very much (interestingly enough, he's also the only character who keeps the name of his real life counterpart). All of this underscores the harrowing and miserable state these people are in. Each day's like one long panic attack until they get money for drugs or booze, at which point they get a brief moment of respite until it's the next morning and they have to do it all again. This is all in the service of an attempt to give us a sense of what this kind of living feels like, and the Safdies succeed mightily. I totally felt it. 

But despite the filmmakers' realist concerns, there are also elements that are highly formal and that definitely draw attention to themselves. Part of this has to do with the pulsating electronic soundtrack they use, which recalls certain 80s action movies except that the thumping tempo here seems implemented to augment the movie's sense of anxiety and dread. It's generally accepted that a lack of music in a film lends to its sense of believability. In the realm of addiction narratives, you can even find an example in the 1971 Al Pacino quasi-classic The Panic in Needle Park, which in its attempt to give us a raw portrait of heroin addicts, opted against the use of a soundtrack. But here the Safdies' rely so much on score that it imparts the sense that we're seeing reality and a horror story unfold simultaneously (there's even a scene where Harley and her friends are getting high while watching a Hellraiser movie). 

This is of course fitting, as the idea seems to be that there's a correlation between these peoples' lives and horror movies. Note how the film doesn't focus on anyone in the city accept for the addicts, as if this is their world and everyone else exists in the background, foregrounded only when they have some change to give. In a scene late in the film, when Harley gets back together with Ilya after he nearly dies of an overdose, we see them lying together on the sidewalk in a passionate embrace, as if living on the streets means they own them as well. Or look at the opening credits sequence where we see Harley in the hospital as she argues with other patients, but instead of dialogue we get the throbbing electronic score and the big black-lettering of the titles, which makes for a pretty creepy sequence. And (spolier), towards the film's close, we see Ilya's tragic end not as it happened in real life, but as he's engulfed in flames after sleeping with a lit candle, the final image of him a closeup of his face melting off. If this were a genre film, Ilya would be the villain: always dressed in black, he appears and disappears at random throughout the film. You get the sense that he's everywhere and nowhere. He seems only capable of causing trouble, and his death carries the sense of ugly fate that you only find in movies. And the fact that Harley loves him feels more like a curse than anything. Whether it's a metaphor for the idea that life for the characters in this film is like a hell, it's a fairly blatant and terrifying scene in its own right, but also one that feels out of place-or not.

I'm left scratching my head slightly over these elements of the movie even though they I'm not left without an explanation for them. And that's a good thing, because the last thing we need is another cut-and-dried tale of addiction. It's as if the Safdies gave themselves the material for a fictional documentary and then asked themselves: how can we both stick to reality and go beyond that? Reality for these characters is not reality for most people, and the Safdies take this idea and run with it in exciting directions. Instead of making an argument, they let the possibilities of the medium communicate ways in which we can view the experiences of these people. They use it freely but never overstep their bounds. The result is a film that feels deeply liberated but also quite responsible. 

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