Apparently matters haven’t changed all that much for NYC heroin addicts over the past forty-five years, at least if “Heaven Knows What” and “The Panic in Needle Park” (1971) are anything to go by. The early Al Pacino picture portrayed a junkie couple on the way to oblivion. So does this new cinema vérité effort from Josh and Benny Safdie, based on an unpublished memoir-novel by Arielle Holmes. Holmes plays a version of herself named Harley, who’s hopelessly in love with a self-absorbed, self-destructive addict named Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), who treats her—and everybody else, it appears—like dirt.

That, in fact, is the way Ilya, a scraggly-haired, snub-nosed guy in a trench coat, is treating Harley as the movie opens. She’s apologizing to him profusely for some unexplained slight, and he harangues her, saying that if she really loved him, she’d have killed herself by now. So she scrounges up a razor blade and slits her arm as he looks on. No sooner does she do so than he’s screaming for an ambulance, and Harley is taken off to Bellevue, where she gets into altercations with other patients.

Released after treatment that clearly hasn’t taken, Harley refuses to let chunky Skully (Necro), who insistently follows her around, become her new escort, instead taking up with Mike (Buddy Duress), a scruffy, voluble drug dealer who clearly uses his own product. Mike expects Harley to work for her daily doses, but often gives in to her pleas for a fix even when she’s failed to go out and beg for the cash to cover the cost. They often crash in the apartment of an old lady who apparently has trouble making ends meet and charges a few bucks a night for a bed, offering sympathy and not-very-good advice, as well as a blind eye to her guests shooting up.

Eventually Ilya reenters the picture, as surly and brutal as ever, and following a scuffle between the two men Harley abandons Mike to go off with him again. After they get together a bit of cash by stealing stuff from convenience stores and then reselling it to the owners of street kiosks, they board a bus for Florida—a turn that’s perhaps intended as a nod in the direction of “Midnight Cowboy.” But Ilya proves as unreliable as ever, and soon Harley finds herself alone again.

“Heaven Knows What” is undeniably potent stuff, the mixture of professional actors like Jones, who enters into his role with frightening intensity, and Duress, a street guy who holds the screen with a natural charisma, coming off very well. The cinematography by Sean Price Williams certainly captures the grittiness of the piece, and the background score, largely made up of Isao Tomita’s electronic versions of pieces by Debussy but occasionally adding some harder bits, gives the grungy tale an appropriately off-putting tone.

Yet while one can certainly admire the way in which Holmes and the Safdies immerse us in the hellish world of these characters, the result is really nothing more than a wallow in nihilism. We’re told nothing about how these people came to this point—indeed, apart from Harley, Ilya and Mike, who form a weird sort of co-dependent romantic triangle, they barely register at all except as sketches; even Skully is little more than a vaguely irritating presence. There’s a harrowing immediacy to them, but nothing more than that, since they don’t really change. As a result there’s very little narrative thrust to the film; the various incidents basically lead nowhere—which is perhaps the point, but not much of one.

And it’s certainly difficult to muster much sympathy for any of the characters, since there isn’t the slightest indication that they have any desire to change anything about their lives, except perhaps their locale. One can feel sorrow and pity over the fact that they’re trapped, but it’s difficult to ignore the fact that it’s a trap of their own making, and one from which they seem to have no wish to escape.
Still, it’s hard to forget Harley’s desperation, Mike’s rumpled pragmatism, and especially Ilya’s dark magnetism—or the hopelessness and degradation in which they spend their days and nights.

“Heaven Knows What” offers an incisive portrayal of life among the homeless addicts who form an often ignored subculture of urban America. But it’s presented in the form of a grim, meandering series of snapshots rather than a meaningful narrative.