Never giving you a moment to take a breath, Josh and Benny Safdie’s unrelenting Uncut Gems is a master class in cinematic anxiety, character examination, and organized chaos. The Safdie brothers, known for 2014’s heroin fueled romance/drama Heaven Knows What and 2017’s acid trip crime thriller Good Time, use the bustling and chaotic Diamond District of New York City as a backdrop for Howard Ratner’s (Adam Sandler) hysterical, gambling ridden adventure. The Safdies have always had a penchant for bottling anxiety and putting it on the silver screen, but they managed to find a way to ratchet up the tension even further than in their previous work.
The film opens on Ethiopia, circa 2010, at an opal mine. Chaos has erupted after a miner broke his leg. The other miners and the foremen scramble to figure out how to fix the situation as the man screams in pain. In the midst of the mayhem, two miners sneak off back into the mine. High up, in a small crevice, gems shine through the dusty rock. The men chisel at the rock until a large chunk falls onto the ground. Dazzling opal shines through different parts of the stone, and cinematographer Darius Khondji slowly zooms into the rock - the titular uncut gem - and eventually we move inside, into a cosmic landscape of color, with shining stones and tiny, brilliant galaxies. The title card appears, and our adventure begins.
Our only formal introduction to our main character is through a medical monitor, as we witness his colonoscopy, we get the basics - HOWARD RATNER. AGE: 48. SEX: M. From there, Howard begins to move through the city. He picks up money, talks to people on the street and on the phone, and eventually arrives at his shop. It’s here that we find that Howard might be a bit troubled. Two large, tough goons have been waiting for him, and they aren’t happy. Howard owes someone money, and they’re here to collect. He promises them he’ll have the money by the end of the week - and seems confident in that assertion. Unfortunately for basketball obsessed Howard, Kevin Garnett (playing himself, and very convincingly) soon appears in his shop, and sets Howard down a road of bad decisions that Howard may not be able to recover from.
Everything Howard does is by all means foolish, at many times completely deplorable - and his method of decision making fueled by his maddening addiction to gambling and his capitalistic, exploitative desire for wealth will constantly have you wanting to yell at him, tell him to stop, to just get out and be done with it. But those are not the kind of sensible, smart decisions that addicts and capitalists make. He is relentless, and his relentless behavior is dizzying and anxiety inducing. Despite all of this, Sandler’s Howard is shockingly personable. He might never tip quite onto the side of likable, as most men like him aren’t, but he’s magnetic, inescapable. You begin to understand him, and to an extent sympathize with his predicament. As the film escalates, viewer anxiety morphs into concern. We fear the extent of what Howard may be a part of, and that unknown aspect powers a level of dread for what may come next. Few movies create these kinds of visceral reactions as well as Uncut Gems does.
Like all great films, Uncut Gems’ success is not singular. The Safdie brothers direction and writing may be a next level, driving force, but the entire crew is doing phenomenal work. The anxiety of the film comes from all angles - the camera, the editing, the score, the acting. I’ve already discussed the power of Sandler’s performance, but the supporting cast is operating just as strongly as he is. Idina Menzel (of Elsa from Frozen fame) plays Howard’s disillusioned, exhausted, and soon to be ex-wife, who Howard constantly treats as a backup plan if his relationship with his mistress (Julia Fox) goes south. Both women are constantly frustrated by Howard’s inability to follow through on his commitments, whether it be leaving them or being with them. Howard repeatedly tries to push back his divorce by making excuses - “I thought we both agreed that we wait until after Passover… I’m not opposed to waiting till after summer… I’m having very serious second thoughts.” Howard wants to have his cake and eat it, too, and it can’t last forever. Eric Bogosian (Talk Radio, Law & Order: Criminal Intent) plays Howard’s angry creditor, Arno, who has become as fed up as seemingly everyone else in his life with his antics, and his anger increases throughout as he discovers Howard’s predilection for throwing every dollar he gets into his next get rich quick scheme, which are repeatedly driven by Kevin Garnett’s belief that the opal has a mystical, magic power that lets him play basketball better, a belief that Howard aggressively wants to bet on. LaKeith Stanfield (Get Out, Sorry to Bother You, Knives Out - one of my favorite working actors) plays Howard’s seedy associate, who lures potential customers into the shop so Howard can sell to them.
The rest of the cast is filled out by phenomenal character actors, who all do incredible work with at times only seconds of screen time. The Safdies’ research for the film led to them meeting a slough of real people who live and work in these places and areas, and one story involved director Josh Safdie meeting a man at a craps table in the midst of filming and inviting him to be a part of the film. These characters are the heart of the film - real humans acting like real humans, doing the very things they do day in and day out.
Aforementioned cinematographer Darius Khondji (Se7en, Okja, Panic Room) takes the signature Safdie style crafted by previous collaborator Sean Price Williams and elevates it to an entirely new level. Claustrophobic close-ups, zoom shots that feel almost impossible, and a constant bead on the center of the chaos populate the film, emphasizing the anxiety while still remaining decipherable at all times. Khodnji’s talent with the camera combined with the Safdie’s script mean that nothing gets lost in the scuffle. Everything moves at mach speed yet feels intact. Rarely will you find yourself questioning where anything is or what anyone is doing. The ethereal, unhinged score by Daniel Lopatin (AKA Ohneotrix Point Never, Good Time, The Bling Ring) matches the energy of the characters, full of raging synths and celestial chants, building and climbing, driving the movie’s racing heartbeat and cosmic mythos.
Uncut Gems is not a movie for the faint of heart, as its frantic pace and furious, unrelenting noise has driven more than a few out of the theater, but for those who can withstand the heat and understand the level at which every person working on this movie is performing, this is one of 2019s best American films from one of America’s most incredible and original distributors (A24 had a killer year in 2019 with this, The Lighthouse, The Farewell, Midsommar, and The Last Black Man in San Francisco). This isn’t one to miss.