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The Safdie Brothers’ Heaven Knows What Remains Their Most Difficult Film

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The story goes something like this. One day, filmmaker Josh Safdie – he of the Safdie Brothers, the fraternal writing and directing duo who, at the time of the telling of this particular anecdote, only had a handful of scrappy DIY indies to their name – was undercover, so to speak, in New York City’s Diamond District. The Safdie method is one that requires a full-immersion approach, and even the most seasoned New Yorkers are generally wary of the ruthless social hierarchies that rule this aforementioned slice of 47th Street. Alas, Safdie pressed on, determined to get what he needed to get for the long-gestating passion project that he and his brother wanted to make.

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Then, out of nowhere, Safdie saw Arielle Holmes: a young woman with striking eyes, and a face that seemed to tell a story, if not several. Instantly taken by her – and mistakenly presuming she was a “classic Russian Diamond District girl” – Safdie then struck up a friendship with this stranger. Over meals in Chinatown, the two would discuss stories from Holmes’ own life. She had struggled with addiction and maintained a side hustle as a dominatrix at a club called Pandora’s Box on W. 26th Street. Safdie had been in the Diamond District researching what would go on to become 2019’s critically adored, Adam Sandler-starring underworld thriller Uncut Gemsbut in that moment, he was shrewd enough to ascertain that the particulars of this woman’s life were more tragic and compelling than anything a screenwriter could fabricate.

Then, one day, Safdie got a call. Arielle Holmes had tried to kill herself, and had only recently been released from Bellevue hospital. At this point, Safdie began to learn about Holmes’ on-and-off-again lover, a volatile local street legend named Ilya Leontyev. Holmes’ suicide attempt, and this man’s participation in it, act as the springboard for the very first scene of Heaven Knows Whatwhich is, among other things, Josh and Benny Safdie’s most discomforting film (the Ilya character is played with a terrifying, almost feral unpredictability by Caleb Landry Jones in the Safdie film; the real Ilya Leontyev died of an apparent overdose in 2015). If you’ve seen the likes of Good Timeor even if you’ve read a single piece about these filmmakers, then you know that discomfort is something they both thrive in and excel at.

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Unlike Good Time and Uncut Gemsthough, there is no actual plot to speak of Heaven Knows What, no whiplash-inducing kinetic momentum that allows us any kind of reprieve from the chaos. The film merely attempts to reproduce the daily routine of someone who is in thrall to the terrible spell of heroin addiction. It does this without judgment or moralizing. One has to think that this unsentimental quality is due, at least in part, to the fact that the Safdies had no comfortable buffer from the world they were depicting. They had a real person’s story in their hands, and the highly specific universe that their film was exploring was one that was notoriously unwelcoming to outsiders.

Except for Caleb Landry-Jones, almost all the actors in Heaven Knows What are non-professional performers. The troubled and electrically charismatic Buddy Duresswho very nearly stole Good Time from Robert Pattinson and has since had his ascent to the cinematic big leagues derailed by several brushes with the law, gives what might very well be Heaven Knows What‘s most heartbreaking performance as Mike, a short-tempered but strangely sweet-natured dealer who’s always good to front his customers a bag, even if he’ll probably guilt-trip them about it later. New York underground hip-hop legend Necro – who himself feels like a Safdie character, a Jewish roughneck from Brooklyn responsible for some of the most transgressive and extreme rap music of the last two decades – is also particularly memorable as Skully, who seems to fancy himself a would-be romantic suitor to Holmes’ character, despite a discernible lack of interest (a fun fact: Necro’s birth name, Ron Braunstein, is almost identical to that of regular Safdie co-writer/co-editor/general co-conspirator Ronald Bronstein).

Heaven Knows What Remains Holmes Story More Than the Safdies

And yet, at the end of the day, Heaven Knows What is still Arielle Holmes’ story more than anyone else’s. It is impossible to imagine the movie without her at its center. Holmes, to her immense credit, never manipulatively courts audience sympathy, and her character, Harley, never behaves like anything other than a real, desperate young woman struggling to keep her head above water in an increasingly treacherous urban ecosystem (Holmes wrote most of the manuscript that would go on to inspire the film, “Mad Love In New York City,” in Apple Stores around the Manhattan area). One gets the sense that both she and the Safdies may have been precious with this performance, as they all collectively understand the importance of falling on the right side of the schism that separates artistic exploration from exploitation.

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Image via RADiUS-TWC

Safdie claimed that, in real life, Holmes and her friends “really [romanticized] death.” It’s a disturbing bit of trivia, but, in a sense, who could blame them? When you make the choices that the characters in this film make, one has to be prepared for the serious possibility of death, trauma, or at the very least, serious bodily harm. Every day, these young people were running around the city, chasing death, sleeping in parks, fighting strangers, and rejecting the false comforts that society had half-heartedly offered them. Holmes’ astonishing performance conveys that fatalism with a quiet, wounded grace. As such, it’s one of the most remarkable screen performances of its kind.

Holmes has a naturally soft and expressive countenance, and some of the most thrilling scenes in Heaven Knows What are the ones where Harley and Ilya experience their own warped version of romantic purity. This is the Safdie version of a romantic melodrama: these people aren’t just addicted to a drug, they’re very much addicted to each other. As anyone who’s seen the film knows, despite these ephemeral jolts of street-side euphoria (**spoilers henceforth**), things don’t end well for Harley and Ilya. The pair board a bus out of town, Ilya ditches her to go OD in an abandoned vacant house, and Harley gets kicked to the side of the road after starting what could politely be called ‘a scene.’ In the end, she trudges all the way back to the White Castle where she and her friends regularly hold court, the implication being that she reached for the stars, fell back to earth, and is all but predestined to repeat the same brutal cycle over and over again.

Holmes has kept a quiet profile in the years since Heaven Knows Whatalthough she went on to enjoy a small role in Andrea Arnold’s American Honey (Arnold, like the Safdies, is known for her way with non-professional performers). The fact that Holmes didn’t go on to star in Marvel movies and oversaturate herself in an already oversaturated movie market is a canny tactic – however controversial it might be in the context of how people talk about the Safdies and the unorthodox way that they’ve used street casting in their films – that only contributes to the mystique of Heaven Knows What itself. The film does not purport to be a note-for-note accurate telling of a woman’s life, but rather, a fevered, innately cinematic reflection of her painful life: the highs, the lows, and everything in between.

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