There’s almost never a quiet moment in the Safdie brother’s Uncut Gems. From the instant Oneohtrix Point Never’s score starts blaring you’re thrown into an endless sensory assault – any given scene may have three different conversations going on at once, characters constantly shouting over each other, and or obnoxious background noise just to top it all off. The abrasiveness won’t be for everyone (there were many walkouts at the London Film Festival premiere) but those who meet Uncut Gems on its wavelength are sure to be stunned; every grimy aesthetic choice crawling its way under your skin to create one of the most nerve-shredding, anxiety-ridden films you’ll ever see. It’s the type of movie that’ll still be ringing in your ears for days after watching.
Uncut Gems‘ seediness is personified in its lead Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a New York jewelry dealer slash obsessive gambler who we’re introduced to with so much debt over his head that it seems only inevitable it’ll come crashing down on him eventually. The feeling is amplified when it becomes apparent that Howard won’t just simply pay his debtors back — he owes $100k to his in-law Arno (Eric Bogosian) but when he gets enough money to pay off a significant amount fairly early on in the movie, he instead funnels it back into sports bets. Howard isn’t interested in settling — he’s interested in winning, a process he explains to basketball player Kevin Garnett (playing himself) later in the movie.
Howard is all compulsion, a man so intent on climbing the ladder of bad intentions that it’s remarkable a rung hasn’t collapsed on him yet. Outside of his debts he has to deal with an impending divorce from his wife (Idina Menzel), a volatile affair with his younger co-worker (Julia Fox), all of the family Passover events he needs to attend, and perhaps most importantly, the titular uncut gem. Imported by Howard from Africa, he intends to sell this mesmerising, rare gem at auction for millions, but when Kevin Garnett walks into his store and becomes obsessed with it Howard decides to loan it to him for good luck at the game that night, on the condition he bring it back the very next morning. Naturally, that doesn’t end up happening, and Howard is sent on a madcap journey across New York in order to abate the various threats holding his personal and professional lives at risk.
Sandler is a genuine revelation here —from the amount of understated joy and misplaced conviction he can convey with a simple “yes” to the maddeningly slimy confidence of his shit-eating grin, his Howard is a remarkably realized character. He perfectly registers the weariness of a man who’s been hustling like this for years, nailing not only the tired desperation but the aggravating cockiness that he knows he’ll be able to get out of whatever situation he wants because this is what he does. It feels like an instantly iconic character is being crafted before your very eyes — one who’s struggles are sympathetic but you’re simultaneously aching to slap him into his senses (one character justifiably calls him “the most annoying person on the planet”).
Like previous Safdie protagonist Connie (Robert Pattinson) of Good Time, Howard is a hustler blind to the harm that his hustling causes, an area the Safdies seem particularly interested in exploring. Despite being two of the most definitively New York-based filmmakers working today, they choose to open Uncut Gems in Ethiopia, tracking over the various black bodies as they dig up the stone that will soon find its way over the ocean where our characters will spend the movie obsessing over it. Though Howard expresses solidarity with the Ethiopian Jews who secured his gem, he’s blind to the exploitation that his marking-up and selling of it represents, and to the vacuous, flashy capitalistic process he’s deeply embedded in despite its violent underpinnings. Good Time provided such a cogent portrayal and critique of white privilege, so it’s deeply gratifying to see the Safdie brothers continue to shine a light on the thorny racial politics of the systems their characters partake in, with the intersection of Howard’s Jewishness to the Ethiopian Jews he buys from to the African-Americans he predominantly sells to being put on full display.
That the Safdie brothers manage to balance such hefty ideas alongside their tightly-wound core narrative is a testament to their ability to fully realize such a distinct vision. The New York of Uncut Gems, rendered in spectacularly claustrophobic 35mm by Darius Khondji, already feels like it stands alongside cinematic portrayals of the city from some of the great New York filmmakers (one of whom, Martin Scorsese, is credited as producer here). It’s a real lion’s den of a setting, and navigating it alongside an endearingly pathetic protagonist like Howard makes it all the more stress-inducing. Like in the best New York crime movies, Howard’s world feels like it’s at breaking point, and it becomes thrillingly easy to get swept up in the frenetic energy of its magnificent collapse. It’s difficult to ignore the inevitable fate that seems to await Howard as he invites misfortune after misfortune upon himself, but that doesn’t make the downward spiral any less of a truly exhilarating, one-of-a-kind journey to experience.