Indie auteurs Josh and Benny Safdie have a new film about a homeless New York junkie called Heaven Knows What, and heaven knows what the unready viewer will make of its hellish discordances. Even the passionate make-out session between Harley (Arielle Holmes) and her beloved Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones) that opens the film is scored with harsh blips that fall like sandpaper on the ears. It turns out, though, that this is Harley’s memory and that Ilya has rejected her, and after about ten minutes of her threatening to commit suicide and buying razor blades, he roars, “You’re a fucking whore! If you loved me, you would have killed yourself by now … Do it!” She cuts, it hurts, she wails, he screams for an ambulance. The mood doesn’t lift.
There’s a funny thing about some discordant music: After the shock wears off, you begin to pick up previously imperceptible harmonies. Most of Heaven Knows What is on Harley’s wobbly, lovelorn wavelength, and her face shows glimmers of childish hope and the longing for a mad rush. The film was inspired by an unpublished book called Mad Love in New York City by Holmes, whom the Safdies spotted on the street. You know what drew them to her. Even when she’s zonked, her eyes are full of pain.
Harley eventually falls in with Mike (Buddy Duress), a dealer-hustler who’s like the cunning Cro-Magnon to Ilya’s primitive, pure Neanderthal. Neither is a good bet, but Jones is a fascinating performer. He’s so messy-slurry he makes Joaquin Phoenix seem like an elocutionist. He might evolve into a remarkable actor — or fall into a manhole, I’m not sure. By the end of Heaven Knows What, you see Ilya’s fragile, unguarded soul through Harley’s eyes, and the film’s discordances sound like the music of the spheres.