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
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
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
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
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