Back in 2017, directors Josh and Benny Safdie broke out with their hyper-stylised, synth-infused indie thriller, Good Time – a film which earned the Safdie brothers mainstream attention, after a decade on the festival circuit. Good Time also served as a significant boost to actor Robert Pattinson’s career, once again cementing his chops as a talented dramatic performer, contrary to the public’s perception of the former Twilight (2008) star.
The Safdie brothers return in 2019 with Uncut Gems, a new crime thriller cut from the same hyper-aggressive cloth as Good Time. The brothers have steadily become maestros at crafting anxiety and stress-inducing characters that are irresistible to look away from, due to their morally-corrupt but empathetic decisions. In many ways, the classic “train-wreck in slow-motion” scenario.
These movies are not for the faint of heart… they’re essentially feature-length panic attacks. But if there’s a panic attack worth having, you could do worse than a film from the Safdie brothers.
Uncut Gems stars Adam Sandler as New York City-based, jewellery store owner Howard Ratner – a man who also happens to have a significant gambling addiction. Howard’s addiction has led to entanglements with loan sharks, and an all-around poor sense of decision-making. He’s cheating on his wife, lending expensive gems to basketball stars, and pawning off items that he doesn’t have the funds to recover.
And yet, despite the despicable, pathetic nature of the character. Through all the horrendous choices made throughout the film… I couldn’t help but feel empathetic towards Howard’s struggles. There’s a desperate, urgent relationship crafted between Howard and the audience, where the Safdie brothers and Sandler offer glimpses and sparks of any potential recovery from this addiction, before immediately tumbling down the rabbit hole once more. Bringing to mind examples of watching a loved one relapsing, following a bout with drug withdrawal.
Sandler is no stranger to dramatic roles, having proven his ability numerous times through films such as Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love (2002), Judd Apatow’s Funny People (2009) and Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (2017). While the world may decry another “comedy” from the Saturday Night Live alumni, there has always been considerable desire and admiration from both critics and fans alike, to see the comedian work outside of his comfort zone.
When committing to material that exudes his genuine talents as a performer, Sandler can be an authentic tour de force, and that couldn’t be more veracious of his terrific, all-or-nothing work in Uncut Gems.
The Safdie brothers had originally pitched Uncut Gems to Sandler back in 2009, when the film was initially conceived. Sandler, at the time, turned the film down. Cut to 2019, and Sandler is now up for significant awards consideration for his role.
Throughout the film, Howard is constantly weaselling and squirming his way out of in-the-moment, increasingly escalating situations that threaten to turn your hair white. In lesser hands, Howard could have come across as some by-the-numbers, vulgar degenerate. However, with the Safdie brothers in control, the audience is allowed to experience the chaotic consequences of Howard’s actions. Not just witnessing his own, self-inflicted consequences but viewing the impact that these choices have on the friends and family that yearn for his improvement.
There is a considerable, anxiety-induced momentum to the pace of Uncut Gems that is constantly keeping Howard on the move. Through frequent encounters with loan sharks over the course of the film, Howard is forced to keep a watchful eye over his shoulder at all times.
Howard’s confrontations with the supporting cast are equal parts riveting and agonising. Real life basketball player Kevin Garnett, assistant Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), mistress Julia (Julia Fox), estranged wife Dinah (Idina Menzel), brother-in-law Arno (Eric Bogosian) and The Weeknd (in a cameo), all offer unforgettable appearances.
Kevin Garnett’s obsession with an uncut opal from an Ethiopian Jewish mining company, stands out as particularly memorable.
Each character in Uncut Gems reveals Howard’s desperate attempts at deceit and depravity. The film is imbued with nods to Jewish culture, (based on the Safdie brothers upbringing and faith) with specific usage of the 10 plagues revealing certain thematic links to Howard’s character arc. Each choice in the film, from the script and direction, feels in-control and effectively deliberate as it hurtles to its pulse-pounding, nail-biting finale.
Much like another recent crime thriller Joker (2019), Uncut Gems owes a significant devotion to the works of Martin Scorsese, with Howard (like Arthur Fleck) revealing shades of Scorsese’s most memorable anti-heroes like Travis Bickle.
Howard Ratner certainly fits within this mould considerably more-so than Fleck however, due to a focus here on consequences resulting from choice over presenting a cautionary figure.
(It is worth noting however, that Scorsese and Emma Tillinger Koskoff executive produced Uncut Gems, while Koskoff was a producer on Joker, with Scorsese being instrumental to that film’s development.)
I’d be remiss not to mention Darius Khondji’s impeccable cinematography, and Daniel Lopatin’s synth-infused score, which combine to form the sense of surreal grittiness that Josh and Benny’s filmography is quickly becoming renowned for.
Uncut Gems is a confronting film that rejects the temptation for crowd-pleasing safety. The outrageous finale in particular, will either make or break the experience for many viewers. I personally found myself in a position of appreciating the finale, which finds a freedom to the madness, while meaningfully and appropriately concluding Howard’s character arc.
Any enjoyment from Uncut Gems will likely fall to what (if any) connection is formed with Howard. If you outright despise the actions of Howard, then I can’t imagine this film winning you over. However, if you recognise the characters depravity while embracing the morally grey sense of empathy toward the character, then you will find a deeply introspective character piece bolstered by a career-best performance from Adam Sandler, and bare-all direction from the Safdie brothers.
Whether you end up loving or hating this film, one thing’s for sure – you’ll probably want a cold shower afterwards.
Director: Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie
Cast: Adam Sandler, Idina Menzel, LaKeith Stanfield
Writers: Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie, Ronald Bronstein