Uncut Gems is another kind of movie altogether—a great one, for starters. And again, it announces this difference in its opening minutes: with a close-up on gorgeous black opals that transports us, Magic School Bus-style, from the mines of the their origin to the similarly cavernous innards of Howard Ratner (Sandler).
Howard, the Jewish diamond dealer whose fate, we soon learn, is bound up with that of the stones, is in the middle of a colonoscopy when we meet him. The moment affords at least one obvious meaning: Uncut Gems is a movie that lives in the gut, where shit makes a name for itself, where anxiety, folly, and instinct are borne out without morality or restriction.
Howard’s own guts, meanwhile, are a repository for the haplessly self-destructive impulses that push him every which way but toward reason or satisfaction. Uncut Gems will end the way it began—serving up another flesh-bound tour of Howard’s body that again migrates toward something vast, cosmic, unknown. By then, though, the substance of these connections, to say nothing of their terrifying implications, will be clear. And the immutable havoc wreaked couldn’t feel more grim.
Uncut Gems, co-written by the Safdies and longtime collaborator Ronald Bronstein, is a movie about a gambling addict whose most consistent bet is on his own life. Howard is a loud, restless, successful merchant of needlessly gaudy swag. His stock is equal parts attractive and repulsive: a diamond-encrusted crucifix with Michael Jackson as Jesus; diamond-studded Furbies on chains; stolen but rich-looking Rolex watches; any variety of “new money” albatross fit for the necks of rappers, ballers, and the like. He’s living the life: a (soon to be ex)-wife and kids on Long Island, a young employee-girlfriend that he’s set up in a swank apartment uptown, and a grab-bag of sports gambling debts that he’s somehow, to this point, managed to evade through an intricate network of lies, scams, pawned items, and luck. Constant threats on his own life notwithstanding, of course.
When fellow hustler Demany (LaKeith Stanfield) shows up with a new prospective client, Kevin Garnett (playing himself), Howard can’t help but show off his newfangled riches: black opals, which he’d learned of only two years ago on the History Channel and had imported for the sake of an auction scam. He feels a connection to the stones: the Ethiopians who dug them up were fellow Jews, after all, a fact he relates with an almost mystical fervor. That doesn’t stop him from trying to exploit the value of the gems, mind you. And it doesn’t stop him from letting Garnett borrow the stone for the weekend: it’s a good-luck charm to get him through Eastern Conference finals, or so the story goes.
It obviously doesn’t work out that way—“obviously” because this is a crime movie on its face, telegraphing from the start that though Howard’s problems are of his own making, their consequences have long ago slipped his control. It’s also, more urgently, a gratifying summary of the Safdie brothers’ career to date. The thirty-something pair have by now made a name for themselves as creators of gritty, persistently uncomfortable New York movies such as 2017’s Good Time and their breakout Heaven Knows What, films that were already extensions of the brothers’ streetwise, comically anxious, ethnically specific shorts and early features.
Gems picks up where that other work left off. It deepens the acute racial tensions dredged up by Good Time, in which Robert Pattinson played a veritable get-over king who wielded his wiles and power over women to rescue his intellectually disabled brother (played by Ben Safdie) from prison. It shares with heroin chronicle Heaven Knows What a sense of inevitable tragedy, wending a wandering-but-sharp path through its protagonists’ persistently destructive addictions. And like those other films, Gems revels in ecstasy: the mysterious allure of the black opal, the pleasurable closure one feels when zipping closed a bag full of money, the deluded optimism of a gambler who gets what they came for and thinks, Why not more?
Typical for the Safdies, Gems takes a ground-eye view of its characters’ comings and goings. Note the redundant running and hustling from place to place, our constant awareness of the buzzer that separates the world of Howard’s store from the dangers just waiting to get a leg in. The Safdies set their characters loose on the world like bombs without targets, supplementing their street realism with energetic visual sleights—sudden pans, confrontational tracking shots—that make the world feel custom-built for conflict. Their usual cinematographer, the essential New York indie stalwart Sean Price Williams, has been replaced here by the eminent Darius Khondji, who pushes the directors’ usual vision towards new extremes. It feels essential to the film's visual ideas that its Jewish characters’ skin tone is consistently brown, for example, and always clearly ethnically marked—an apt thematic provocation that at times feels like a consequence of ingenious lighting and lensing.
A Sandler/Safdie collaboration should frankly have felt inevitable, but for the fact that (Punch-Drunk Love excepted) Sandler hasn’t frequently leant his celebrity to independent fare. It couldn’t have worked out better, in this case. I’m a longtime fan of Sandler, and of his schtick; I know his grab-bag of gestures and jokes as well as any other living actor’s. And yet I wasn’t prepared for Uncut Gems, which pushes his comic persona far toward the malicious insecurities that have long given Sandler his fire. Classic Safdie characters are brash, volatile—as are Sandler’s. Here, juiced up with an awful mustache and a personal style befitting his awful merchandise, he unleashes untold reserves of mania and panic. I can barely think of a moment in the film in which Sandler isn’t screaming.
It helps to have a supporting cast that is so game, and so good, and equally prone to screaming—particularly Idina Menzel as Howard’s put-upon firecracker of a wife; Julia Fox as his girlfriend; and Eric Bogosian as an in-law to whom Howard owes just a fraction of his debts, and whose own rigamarole of moral uncertainties get fleshed out at the climax of the film with devastating reaction shots that practically upend the movie.
Gems occupies a larger, more terrifying world than the Safdies’ previous films, and it also wears us down with much less inhibition, if you can imagine that. When the late premiere screening of the film ended, I stumbled out into the dark riding a sugar high that verged on a headache. I was troubled, mortified, and unforgivably hyped, overwhelmed by its choices; I passed a guy who complained that the film “went nowhere” (“but Sandler was good at least”)—which is right on both fronts. Howard is a psychological dilemma manifest: a mind intent on destroying itself, a one-man karmic wheel. Uncut Gems sets the wheel spinning. By the end, you'll wish that it hadn’t.
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