“When I put a spike into my vein, And I tell you things aren’t quite the same” – Velvet Underground

The junkies in Trainspotting (1996) may have had a Lou Reed soundtrack to accompany their heroin highs but it is the song Heroin by the Velvet Underground that probably encapsulates Heaven Knows What, a stark realist romance that is as horrific as it is instrumental in giving a whole different perspective of the life and culture from its central characters. These are addicts with an all-consuming need for money to get their fixes and the film shows, in unflinching detail, the extent to which their emotional proclivities range in all extremities from unbelievable cruelty to unwavering affection. The visual elements of the film and its soundtrack are vital to creating the atmosphere but it’s central protagonist Harley (Arielle Holmes) who holds the film’s foundation with a performance of utter conviction, sadness, frustration and desperation, made all the more moving in that the film is based on her memoirs Mad Love in New York City. The film’s closing dedication is particularly poignant as it embraces the reality of a fictional film firmly grounded in reality: all too disturbing but utterly human.

The film opens with a couple experiencing a most profound moment: kissing and crying. Harley is being kissed by lover Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), lying on the ground. She is asking “What can I do to make you forgive me?” but he appears not to comprehend due to his drug-induced state. Later, his request that “If you love me, you’d have killed yourself by now,” prompts Harley to acquire single edged razorblades and attempt the suicide that he desires. She always tries to make him understand, “What can I do to make you forgive me?” but her requests are denied verbally or he rips apart her heartfelt note to him. She spends time in hospital with 14 stitches on her wrist before returning to her friends. She rejects her friend Skully’s (Ron Braunstein) attempt to persuade her to leave Ilya and seeks Mike (Buddy Duress), a dealer, whom she believes him to be a person who understands her and starts living with him. So the community exist between night-time excursions and daytime attempts at obtaining money for fixes, be it begging, stealing or selling. They come back into contact with Ilya and the question “But you still love him, right?” still resonates with Harley. Her answer is as definitive as it is tragic for both of them.

Heaven Knows What is a claustrophobic film with a narrative that is internalised, cruel and based on the perception of its characters rather than being given a wider context. Its naturalistic approach avoids any extreme cinematic techniques to engage in the real world. So in terms of composition and editing Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie use the environment and its denizens to emphasise the realism rather than rely on hand-held POV to give a forced cinematic perspective. This ensures that events are immediate, visceral and believable as they follow the daily timeline of the addicts, necessity leading to the repetition of begging and stealing for however many hits are available. And Harley needs her hits – to the extent that two at night followed by two in the morning are never enough, leading her to demand her quotas early, to keep the rush going. “Push that shit in and boom bang you’re fuckin’ good”.

In many ways the film uses its score to a greater extent than its visual elements to enhance the perspective on matters. The music is electronic, most notable in the protagonists’ dancing on drugs scene, but it also comprises a drone element, perpetually in the background, enhancing the situations without resorting to camera trickery or overtly lyrical content. Paul Grimstad and Ariel Pink (whose music video is also provided on the release as an extra) immerse you convincingly into the world, whilst the sound of avant garde pioneer of analogue synthesizer sounds Isao Tomita is included to add to the whole feel of timeless junky (dis)orientation mixing the abstract with the beautiful.

Heaven Knows What is a romance of cruelty and addiction which is poignant, moving and very real.