Josh and Benny Safdie’s Heaven Knows What didn’t make much noise when it landed in the UK. Indeed, none of the duo’s films quite managed to break into public consciousness until Robert Pattinson starred for them in 2017’s Good Time, and even then the fanfare generally remained squarely within the cinephile community waiting to embrace it.
That’s a shame, as the brothers are creating some of the most energised, frenetic work on the indie scene at the moment. Theirs is a cinema keenly connected with the misfits and miscreants of New York; films which rush to keep a pace with folk who are almost always struggling hell for leather just to keep afloat. It’s exhilarating, raw and abrasive. Their modus operandi – handheld for immediacy, keen to work with actors and non-actors alike – brings a verite feel to their work, akin to elements of French New Wave or the raucous, combustible films of John Cassavetes; something a million miles away from the reserved, exacting, even sterile approach found in the masterworks of the late, great Stanley Kubrick.
Why bring Kubrick up when talking about the Safdie brothers? As established, their creative approaches couldn’t seem more disparate. Kubrick died well before the Safdies arrived on the scene. There seems, initially, to be no point of connection, no crossover…
For Heaven Knows What Arielle Holmes plays Harley, a heroin addict living rough on the streets of New York, caught in a loop of destructive and abusive love with her kamikaze boyfriend Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones). They fight in the streets. Score together, enable one another, push each other to extremes. Theirs is a relationship of passion, for better and (frequently) worse. What’s more – in keeping with the ethos of their movies – Holmes is playing an iteration of herself. The movie is based on her own experiences. Harley is a version of Holmes. The two are far more literally intertwined than the usual bonds of character and actor.
In the second half of the film there comes a sequence that takes place at night. Having reconciled, Harley and Ilya are out on the streets. Harley gets a call on her burner from their dealer friend Mike (Buddy Duress). Ilya, laughing, takes the phone from her hands and hurls it away from them. The camera starts to swerve as though to track the arc of the phone’s journey, only it is here that the Safdie brothers choose to make a wry, playful and inspired cut.
As the burner exits screen right, we cut to a firework shooting up across the New York night sky. On initial viewing its easy to miss that a cut has taken place, so quick and smart is the match. The camera tracks as though it is a continuation of the same action. When the firework explodes into colour in the sky, it is as though, by some superhuman power, Ilya has caused the phone to combust. Boom! Of course, nothing of the kind has happened. After a split second of amazement and confusion we realise what the Safdies have done. The trick. And its delightful.
For one thing, it plays joyfully into the celebratory state both the film’s leads are in. It’s a touch of romantic magic in a film that otherwise revels in the grim realities of drug addiction and homelessness. It’s like an exclamation mark brazenly placed slap bang in the middle of a sentence. How brazen. How coquettish. On another level, however, it acts as a marker for film enthusiasts willing to connect the dots.
Perhaps the most famous cut of all time occurs in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey as its opening chapter ‘The Dawn of Man’ comes to a close. Kubrick’s ape-man hurls a bone into the air; a bone he has used as a tool, representing the first giant leap in ‘human’ evolution triggered by the Monolith. Kubrick’s camera traces the bone up, and, as it descends again, it is replaced with a spaceship crossing the star-strewn expanse of the infinite in the year 2001. Millennia crossed in the blink of an eye. How daring. Such vision.
The Safdie cut openly invites the memory of the Kubrick cut. And it goes a touch beyond mere mimicry. There’s an additional layer of humour here when you consider what’s happening in the Safdie’s scene. A cell phone is being hurled – perhaps the most iconic totem of our modern set of ‘tools’. Really, is any other piece of technology so completely indicative of our times? And what is it seemingly transformed into…?
A rocket, flying through the night sky.
Ilya’s even in on the joke. “THAT’S funny,” he says, as though talking to us, “That’s funny. That’s funny.”
At no other point do these two films intersect, and why should they? But in that split second, as a cell phone turns into a firework, the Safdie brothers acknowledge the legacy of Kubrick. It doesn’t matter that their styles are virtual opposites. It’s a reminder that just because you make one kind of art doesn’t mean you don’t appreciate the skill and inspiration involved in another. It’s another stitch in the great tapestry of cinema. Everything connects. Influence. Homage. Respect. Heaven Knows What and 2001: A Space Odyssey become two points in a vast spiderweb, threaded together with gossamer string (not for nothing, 2001 and Kubrick aren’t the only cinematic reference points to find in Heaven Knows What).
It makes me think how each individual film is part of a greater puzzle being pondered by humanity. If only I could see everything, maybe I’d somehow be able to see it all; the unending message we’re making; this diary of the world.