Question for you: have you ever had a nightmare? Specifically, have you ever had the kind of nightmare where everything is going wrong and a whole bunch of very loud and very angry monsters are relentlessly chasing you and you can’t make it stop for even a second no matter how loud you scream and you’re compulsively making the absolute worst possible decisions and you keep only just avoiding the inevitable outcome where everything collapses on top of you until very suddenly and unceremoniously you don’t? You know that nightmare, the one that causes you to wake up in cold sweats and feel paranoidly unsettled for several hours afterwards regardless of age? Yeah, that one. OK, that’s Uncut Gems.
I am going to say this upfront, the sixth feature film by brothers Josh & Bennie Safdie is an acquired taste and your enjoyment of the film is going to depend upon your tolerance for spending 135 uninterrupted minutes in the company of universally horrible high-strung people, none of whom learn anything from their experiences, all of whom spend the entire runtime shouting at the top of their lungs at and over each other whilst making the absolute worst possible decisions at every single turn because they genuinely do not know any better. That is going to be a dealbreaker for many a prospective viewer, and the potential pool of fans will only get smaller when I tell you that watching Uncut Gems is a relentlessly stressful experience, at times almost unbearable – I was borderline watching key sections of this film through my fingers, mentally screaming for the experience to stop like a bystander hypnotised by a game of Jenga where the collapse of the tower will result in the surrounding three city blocks being blown up as well. I’ve had school tests that were less stressful than watching this movie. I’ve walked through Scunthorpe city centre late at night by myself and felt less anxious than when I was watching this movie.
But regardless of whether or not this kind of viewing experience is for you, the one thing that’s undeniable is that Uncut Gems is one of the best films of 2019. The Safdies have been mining this kind of territory for a while now – 2014’s heroin drama Heaven Knows What was also about addiction, whilst their 2017 Robert Pattinson crime thriller Good Time was basically the dry run for this – but their work on Gems sees them finally nailing their attempts in recent years to revive the spirit of grimy 70s New York character thrillers. I am that person who didn’t get all the hype about Good Time, feeling it was all style and zero substance with the filmmaking lacking the propulsion required, so dedicated as it was to replicating an aesthetic feel but failing to find the character and thematic core which made its obvious influences resonate. (We call this Joker Syndrome nowadays.) Uncut Gems is the movie that Good Time wanted so very badly to be with better filmmaking, a better lead performance, actual character and thematic studies at its core, and even the better Daniel Lopatin score pushing it forward.
Much like Good Time, Gems is predicated around an entitled masculine asshole making a series of self-destructive decisions which drag both himself and every single living being he comes into contact with into the gutter. This time, that asshole is Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a shady Jewish jewel dealer operating in New York City’s famed Diamond District in 2012. Howard has a compulsive and crippling gambling addiction which he fuels by borrowing money from loan sharks all over town, oftentimes using the latest loaner’s money to pay back a completely different loaner, pawning off his own client’s collateral and, in his latest big scheme that’s meant to settle his various debts for good, importing a rare Ethiopian uncut black opal which, at auction, Howard estimates can fetch upwards of $1 million.
But Howard’s love of the addictive hit from gambling also extends to his outward life choices. He’s in the midst of separating from his wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) due to cheating on her with the much younger employee he recently hired to work at his shop (Julia Fox). He’s formed a business partnership with a streetwise hustler, Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) bringing Howard clients and Howard in turn selling Demany’s fake bejewelled Rolex watches in-store, whom he’s ripping off. Most immediately perilous, however, is that he can’t resist showing off the opal to basketball star Kevin Garnett (playing himself), loaning it out to the player despite needing to have the gem officially valued ASAP because Garnett takes one look at the thing and forms a spiritual bond with it that he thinks will improve his game ahead of the playoffs, which becomes a real problem when Garnett suddenly becomes hard to get hold of and where the precarious house of cards that Howard has been meticulously constructing starts collapsing in rapid fashion.
Where, for me, Good Time worked in a lot of generalities – to put it bluntly, everything it had to say about its protagonist was said in the opening scene, where Pattinson’s Connie bursts into his disabled brother’s therapy session and forcibly drags him out to go rob a bank under the loud insistence that he knows what’s best for his brother, and the following 90 minutes just restated that information to increasingly diminishing returns – Uncut Gems operates in specificity. Howard’s a compulsive dirtbag, the kind of asshole who thinks he has the charm to slide through life on the absolute razor’s edge and get away with it, with basically no redeeming qualities and without the charm a character like this normally has to make spending the length of a movie in their presence any fun. But he’s an absolutely fascinating dirtbag to watch work, constantly unveiling new levels of pathetic assholery at every turn, not just the fact that he’s a charmless sociopath but that he’s just so very bad at this, to a degree which reminds me a lot of the similar character study which powered Ruben Östlund’s The Square. It’s honestly fascinating to watch Howard find a new level of destructive amorality to sink to every time it would seem like he’s hit the bottom of the barrel.
There’s a coherent psychology at play, where his every dumbass decision makes a warped sense when seen through his sociopathic junkie mindset, and that’s something which Sandler takes full advantage of. Those who hear the phrase “the best Sandler has ever been” – and, to be clear, this truly is the absolute best performance Adam Sandler has given across his three-decade career to date – may head in expecting a radically different turn from him than usual. They may subsequently be confused to discover that, if anything, he’s actually giving one of the loud asshole performances that can be found in his generally derided Happy Madison movies, just amped up to extremes. The crucial difference is in the details. Sandler’s typical protagonists are assholes with soft centres, a redeeming core which Howard lacks – he’s even (successfully) trying to hook his eldest son on sports gambling at his own school! They’re often trying to be witty, whilst Howard lacks even the tiniest capacity for wit. They get stressed out because they’re sick of dealing with unreasonable jerks intruding in his space, whilst Howard clearly gets off on winding them up and pushing them as close to physical retaliation as is humanly possible – you get the sense that, for all his bursts of evident frustration, Howard would be absolutely miserable if he did lead a stress-free content life.
And Sandler plays all of this with a twinkle in his eye and a shit-eating grin just begging for a trip to Fist City. He is genuinely mesmeric to witness anti-charm his through a non-stop cavalcade of the worst decisions imaginable, the kind of human trainwreck who is just too fascinating a specimen to look away from. That kind of lived-in performance is what elevates Howard above anti-hero cliché, but it’s not a trait solely to endemic to Sandler, with the entire cast coming to play and fully realising these archetypes into something much more interesting. This is especially true for the women in Howard’s life. Menzel is playing the disapproving wife over the goddamned man-child’s shit role you’ve seen a hundred times before, but it’s the specific firm register Menzel adopts (with more done-with-this-shit soul-piercing stares than Stanley Kubrick’s entire filmography) which makes Dinah a force to be reckoned with. Newcomer Julia Fox meanwhile finds just the right nuggets of misguided immature devotion to make her entire existence the pitiable heart of the movie rather than a comedically childish irritation.
As for the raw filmmaking… even with the obvious DNA strands and visual & aural callbacks to their previous movie, I still cannot believe this is a work by the same guys who made Good Time. Uncut Gems rockets forward for every single one of its 135 minutes. This is propulsive, tightly-coiled filmmaking. Grimy and fast-moving thanks to Darius Khondji’s ever-whirling and claustrophobic yet precisely measured so as to not become exhausting cinematography. Ronnie Bronstein and Bennie Safdie’s visual editing in this is sublime, communicating the chaos of everything going on in a manner that’s overwhelming yet comprehendible, but it’s the sound editing and mixing which are the real ace cards here. There’s a very Altman-esque delivery to the often stumbling circuitous cacophony of dialogue being yelled by every single character on-screen (which is almost always more than 2), so much so that Daniel Lopatin’s new-age-y washed out score is being drowned out as often as it’s doing the drowning out, but it never becomes a headache to sit through or difficult to follow because the team responsible for editing and mixing the sound do a phenomenal job at subtly manipulating the audio in a manner which guides the viewer and provides just enough respite to avoid inducing migraines. It’s a little detail you may not notice but one which truly makes the film.
Which brings me back to what I said up top: even with Uncut Gems being one of the finest-made films of 2019 – regardless of personal preference, the actual filmmaking and craft on display here are undeniable – there is a very good chance you may end up despising it because it is such an unapologetically abrasive acquired taste. To watch Uncut Gems is to trap yourself in a box for just over two hours with the kinds of people you hear profanely arguing outside of a Ladbrokes on Saturday night looking for any excuse to start shivving everybody inside with them; hateful, ill-tempered, assholes of the highest degree who, even with the rather frequent breaks of extremely dark comedy, aren’t fun to be around. And if you can get over that, then I hope you’re not currently suffering from easily-triggered anxiety or anything, cos the Safdies are going to whale on that button like it owes them $100,000 and counting – even before we get to the unbearably tense final Hail Mary, there’s a scene around the midpoint involving Howard’s faulty security door and a rotating series of very angry customers which especially set me off something fierce.
This really is not for everyone. But if it is for you, like it turned out to be for me, that specific hit the Safdies provide is pure uncut adrenaline of the kind so few movies from 2019 bothered to offer. It’s addictive and perhaps kind of horrible for you but impossible to wean off of; I already want to see Uncut Gems again. This is focussed, exemplary, pressure-cooker, charging, elated filmmaking and the kind of genuinely nuanced and highly-specific character and social study you don’t see much of from mainstream-adjacent cinema nowadays. What a rush.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ovoJXdtPB-o&w=560&h=315]
Uncut Gems is currently playing in select cinemas nationwide and will be streaming on Netflix from 31st January.