Synopsis: In New York City circa 2012, jeweller and compulsive gambler Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) spends a weekend chasing a rare black opal that promises to be the solution to all his problems.
1. I don’t normally start these things by talking about the acting, but it is unavoidable for this particular movie, especially considering that much of the press around it surrounds its lead actor. Adam Sandler has gained a justly deserved reputation for slumming it in the laziest lowest-denominator comedies, but every once in a while, he pulls out a performance that reminds everyone just why and how he became such a big star to begin with. One gets the feeling that it takes a truly gifted filmmaker (or in the case of Uncut Gems, a pair of them) to push Sandler out of his comfort zone and into the territory of brilliance. Paul Thomas Anderson did it with Punch-Drunk Love by tapping into the raging childlike anger that was always at the root of the Sandler persona, and the Safdie Brothers take a similar tack of drawing out the darkness that was always inherent, even in Sandler’s direst ‘comedies’. The end result is not just Sandler’s best ever performance (that was practically a given), but one of the best ever performances put to film. From Adam Sandler. Yes, that Adam Sandler. Howard Ratner is an instantly indelible character, an odious, conniving weasel of a man whose wife correctly describes as ‘the most annoying person in the world’. However, the true triumph of Sandler and the Safdies is how, against all odds, they make Howard likeable, to the extent that the audience cannot help but to root for this garbage person to succeed.
Sandler’s previous career high
2. Part of this is thanks to Sandler’s movie-star charisma and inherent aw-shucks likability – there is a guileless innocence to Howard that is a reminder of the many man-children Sandler has played over the years. Another, more important reason lies in the fact that the Safdies have constructed a damn fine movie around its protagonist. If anything, they may have succeeded too well in immersing the viewer in Howard’s life, because good lord is Uncut Gems unpleasant to sit through, which I mean in the best possible way. It is the cinematic equivalent of a panic attack, a non-stop barrage of escalating tension and anxiety from start to finish. The Safdies’ have impeccable technique, as can be seen in the way they can make what is clearly a tightly blocked and choreographed scene feel like an off-the-cuff documentary. Part of this comes from the Safdies’ cinema vérité tendencies, such as their casting of non-professional actors (including NBA legend Kevin Garnett as himself and doing a damn fine job of it) or filming scenes in actual crowded New York streets with real life people in the background. Another part of this is in the way they film and edit scenes as a form of controlled chaos, with overlapping dialogue (much of it hollered) and handheld cinematography (masterfully handled by Darius Khondji) that veers wildly from one space-invading closeup to another.
3. Aside from the quality of the filmmaking, the Safdies’ screenplay (co-written with usual collaborator Ronald Bronstein) is also very cleverly written, particularly in the way it plays with audience expectations. The best example of this can be seen from the film’s lead female characters. A canny viewer would be primed to expect that Howard’s much younger mistress (Julia Fox in a dynamite debut) will betray him in some way … except she proves to be the only character who is firmly in his corner. Or take Howard’s wife Dinah (Idina Menzel), who would fit perfectly in the ‘shrewish killjoy’ archetype so prevalent in antihero crime films … except the film entirely takes her side and validates her low opinion of Howard every chance it gets. The strength of the writing is also a factor in Uncut Gems’ escalating tension, as the Safdies and Bronstein create multiple scenarios where the answer to Howard’s problems is just out of reach (sometimes within the same frame) and putting the viewer on edge as to whether he will make it.
[SPOILER ALERT, JUMP TO PARAGRAPH 4 TO AVOID IT]
This is also what makes the climax of the film so utterly successful, as the Safdies cut through Howard’s self-serving bullshit to make clear once and for all that he is the root of his own issues. It is a scene that is simultaneously unbearable and mesmerising, as Howard finally gets his hands on the thing he needs most, only to delude himself into staking it all away again. In any just universe, it is the scene that wins Sandler his Oscar, but I have said my fair share on the matter already.
4. All in all, Uncut Gems is a hellishly well-constructed thriller that more than achieves its goal of putting its viewer through the wringer. The Safdie brothers create a living, breathing world of underground gambling and jewel trading thanks to their impeccable (and subtle) technique, harkening back to traditions of cinema vérité and neo-realism. At the film’s centre is one of the most remarkable performances of the last few years from an extremely unlikely source. Uncut Gems is a character study that plunges the audience into the obsessions and delusions of its addict protagonist, to the extent that the film is deeply uncomfortable to sit through. Nonetheless, it is definitely worth everyone’s time, especially to witness a different (and much welcomed) side of Adam Sandler.
Uncut Gems is available on Netflix in all territories outside the United States