Uncut Gems is a slimy, filthy, rollercoaster of a movie, whose twists and turns can be seen from a distance but only makes it all the more unbearable. Meticulous scripting and structure blend with a feeling of off-the-cuff improvisation to create an almost intimate documentary feel. The Safdie brothers, Josh and Benny, take us by the lapel as they lead us down into Howie Ratner’s (Adam Sandler) ninth circle of hell but making sure we stop off at the other levels along the way.
An exhausting and anxiety-ridden experience Uncut Gems is relentless as we follow Howie’s pathological need for the next high from a risky bet. If you’re like me, you still don’t understand how or what a “vig” is, despite having seen the entirety of The Sopranos. The Safdie brothers make sure we are not adrift. We may not understand the particulars, but we do understand what is at stake.
The Safdie brothers have made a nihilistic opera about a sad sack who does nothing but make one bad decision after another. He’s doomed from the opening frame, and their heart goes out to him, but he brought it on himself. The poor schmuck can’t help himself.
A distinctive voice, the Safdies, have an intrinsic understanding of not just how to tell a story but how to drag us along for the ride. Sandler’s Howie is a fast-talking, schlubby, Trumpian wet dream. He believes in the American dream and sometimes realizes he has even achieved it.
His ugly, tacky clothes are meant to broadcast his wealth, but he has no style, which gives us an idea of his character. Howie is the crude loudmouth at the end of the bar who wears a Knicks Jersey and Celtics hat. Clothing and jewelry are status symbols to him. What they say isn’t as important as who made them. He is the type of salesman who’s so abrasive he rarely ever gets to the actual sales pitch because it inevitably deteriorates into a screaming argument.
Uncut Gems is a movie that starts out at an Ethiopian Diamond mine, only to follow a couple of miners as they discover a massive multicolored opal. Darius Khondji’s camera zooms into the gem as we are plunged into a kaleidoscopic world of bright and hypnotic colors only to emerge in Howie’s colon during a colonoscopy. After being in Adam Sandler’s head all these years, who knew the one truly interesting and poetic part of him was his colon; actually, having seen his comedies, I’m not that surprised after all.
Sandler is used to playing characters like Howie, who is selfish, emotionally stunted, and temperamental. But in his comedies, Sandler always tries to have a happy ending or upbeat salvation for his characters. Howie is doomed from the opening scene, perhaps even before then. When we meet Howie, his marriage is already in the midst of collapse. His wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel), is sick of his scheming, his affairs, and, quite frankly, the mere sight of him. After Passover, they announce their divorce to the family.
Great news for Howie’s girlfriend and employee, Julia (Julia Fox), as she is eager to be the next Miss Ratner. Bizarre as it may seem, someone so young and attractive would like someone like Sandler’s Howie, until we realize the two are not that different, apart from appearances. Julia seems hellbent on her own implosion only; instead of gambling, she’s chosen sex. The two are perfect for each other, which is another way of saying in no way should these people be together.
The uncut opal gem from the Ethiopian mine is a MacGuffin standing in for the American ideal of the American dream. It represents hope, and a better life, and instills an almost mystic belief that if we push and try hard enough, the sky’s the limit. Celtics power forward Kevin Garnett (as himself) believes the opal is a good luck charm. For Howie, it’s the deal of a lifetime which will make him what he already is, rich; but this will make him richer.
That Sandler is terrific and engaging is no real surprise anymore. But that he so utterly disappears and that his Howie is such a complete creation comes as weirdly shocking. Though he may have the same Sandler DNA, Howie is a much darker, more desperate, and more violent character than Sandler has ever played.
The real surprises, though are Garnett and Fox. Kevin Garnett is not an actor but seems to have a future as one, or at the very least, a future playing himself. The Italian master Vittorio De Sica famously believed everyone was capable of playing one role perfectly; themselves. I’ve seen many a non-actor play themselves, but I have rarely seen a non-actor play themselves so convincingly along sides such talents as Sandler or Lakeith Stanfield as Howie’s street man Demany. He spends most of his time by Garnett’s side, acting as the go-between for Kevin and Howie, but whose loyalty is to himself.
Towards the end, Kevin sits down with Howie and demands to know how much he paid for the opal. We know the opal arrived smuggled inside a dead fish because we saw Howie gleefully slice it open earlier in the film. Howie refuses to answer because “out of context it will sound cheap.” Kevin won’t let up, though until finally, Howie reveals that he paid a few thousand for the gem he believes to be worth over a million.
The Safdies, and their co-writer, Ronald Bronstein, cleverly dissect class and race via conversations like these. Kevin tries to make Howard understand that he has basically exploited the mineworkers, while Howie tries to make Kevin understand how much work went into finding and smuggling the opal out of the country. Except neither is particularly interested in what the other is trying to say.
The dialogue is loud and overlapping, like in real life, in which people don’t so much talk as shout so as to be sure they are heard. This type of dialogue requires such timing and rhythm, making Garnett’s performance all the more miraculous. He not only plays himself effortlessly but convincingly.
Likewise, Fox’s role as the sultry fast-talking confidante to Sandler’s kinetic energy incarnate Howie feels like a discovery in itself. Like Garnett, her performance is weighted with the feeling that she existed before the movie started and will continue to exist after the credits roll and the lights come on. She not only holds her own against Sandler’s manic energy but pushes him to an intensity we’ve never seen from him before. Her emotional immaturity is vital, so she accurately reflects Howard despite the yawning age gap.
If we look at Menzel’s Dinah, we can see Julia’s future if Howard manages to make it past the end of the week. With Menzel, we see a woman accustomed to the finer things but who despises the price she’s had to pay for them. At one point, Howard is stripped naked by a persistent loan shark, Arno (Eric Bogosian), and shoved into the trunk of his car.
He calls Dinah to come out and get him out under the guise of “I’ve locked my keys in the trunk.” As the trunk opens and a naked Howie peeks out, smiling and assuring her everything is okay, her expression speaks volumes. We get the sense that this is not the first time she’s discovered a naked Howie crammed into a tight space, but it will be the last.
Bronstein’s and the Safdie brother’s script bubbles with life, humor, and sheer crass vulgarity. The humor is a safety valve. It’s meant to keep us from exploding from the unbearable anxiousness streaming headlong through the film as Howie makes one horrible life-threatening decision after another.
Though the dialogue flows so freely and naturally with starts, stops, and interruptions, an immutable structure persists in which the story calmly sets up situations that will come back later. One example that comes to mind is when the security door to Howie’s jewelry shop is jammed, trapping Kevin and his crew between the bulletproof glass and a locked door.
The scene borders on slapstick comedy ending with Standfield’s Demany knocking on the glass repeatedly. “The knocking isn’t helpful.” Sandler dryly says as he gets a hammer. Expertly executed, and so thankful are we for something funny to happen, that we forget it until we remember it seconds before it happens again; only this time it is not so funny.
Khondji’s camera pulls off the neat hat trick of both being nigh on invisible while also moving at such speeds and angles, befitting a madman hellbent on his own self-destruction. It is remarkable how intrusive yet unnoticeable the camera is in Uncut Gems. The way Khondji captures every little detail while also allowing us time to notice them but never allowing us to be comfortable is a tour de force. Colors jump off the screen screaming, like Demany’s neon orange hoodie in a club, as the room becomes bathed in a light, calming blue. Except calm is an emotion we aren’t allowed, and thus Howie’s screaming voice punctures the soothing color with his presence.
Watching Uncut Gems feels like a coiling slow crawl toward an anxiety attack. The Safdie brothers are the rare directors who seem fascinated by awful people but never lower themselves to forgiving them. They pity them, instead choosing to observe how they manifest their own failure. Some might wonder what is the point of such a masochist experience.
The answer is simple: it’s cathartic. We are all, in some form or another, involved in our own self-destruction it’s just not condensed into two hours, so it’s harder for us to see it. Watching characters like Howie spiral out of control is a reminder of there, but for the grace of God, go we.