Directors: Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie
Elara Pictures / IAC Films / Sikelia Productions / Netflix
The Safdie Brothers wowed people with 2017’s Good Time – which was basically Dog Day Afternoon re-cut amongst millennial angst and the pressures of the steely-grey world of today, yet it had – entirely – its own voice. An actual marvel of low/ish-budget indie filmmaking. Reason for people to be ready and waiting for the next thing.
Uncut Gems is that next thing – and it arrives with the poisoned chalice of a winning Adam Sandler performance; this can mean some people will not want to take the film at all seriously, and that others will be amazed Sandler can do anything straight. Both responses are a bit silly – he’s been turning out good to pretty-great ‘serious’ roles over the last twenty years, first getting notices for Punch Drunk Love and a little later Funny People – but if you know where to look you’ll also have found Reign Over Me and The Meyerowitz Stories among others. And if you never wanted to look – nor ask, that’s also okay. But it really shouldn’t impact your viewing of this film. Let’s get it all out the way though: Sandler is really good here. Did he deserve an Oscar or many more accolades? Probably not. And also who cares? What is relevant is that he’s very good and the role seems to have been purpose-built for him, is most certainly buoyed by his performance in that way where you cannot imagine anyone else taking it on once you’ve seen him do what he does here.
Sandler is Howard Ratner, a Jewish-American gambling addict and petty-con jeweller. He’s in large to some goons due to unwise sports betting so he doubles down by involving a separate set of thugs. His brother in law is one of the loan-sharks he’s in hock to, his wife is estranged, his girlfriend is enraged and Ratner – think about the first syllable of that surname – just keeps finding new ways to bury himself down in debt and bad decisions. He’s so utterly unlikeable that he’d be reason enough for a person to not watch this film. But the performance by Sandler is compelling.
No family outing – or celebration – is safe with Howard Ratner’s track-record a noose around the neck of all affiliated.
Far more infuriating than Ratner’s bad decisions – which includes taking bets on Boston Celtics basketball star Kevin Garnett (played by the real Garnett) using the collateral of his Championship ring which was a type of down-payment on the titular black opal – is the fact that everyone talks over one another, and the film’s jittery, uncomfortable vibe does everything it can to shut you out for about the first 45 minutes.
It’s a rare piece of art – an uncut gem if you will – that is totally okay with shutting you out, not bothered to lose its audience in the pursuit of excellence.
The Safdie brothers are showing that in their shorts and feature films. They care about their vision and won’t compromise.
Uncut Gems is claustrophobic, intense, infuriating and – eventually – it is utterly captivating.
The music is by Daniel Lopatin, he’s better known as Oneohtrix Point Never. Under his usual performing alias he scored the Safdies’ previous feature. Now he’s putting Oneohtrix on hold and releasing this score under his under name. It’s a move that suggests a type of professional separation – movie score career under one name, solo albums under another. And he’s not alone in that move. But it’s unmistakeably the music he’s been making across the last decade and a half – a perfect-for-these-times update on Kraftwerkian principles as Eno-esque squelches and synth washes are teased out over post hip-hop templates. Here, as with in Good Time, the music is a character in the film, it’s almost the narrator amid so many competing conversations and direct clashes of dialogue.
To fully unpack what happens in this movie is of course to spoil it – but the ratcheting of tension and the mood created, the feeling of it being such an original piece of work (with some 70s-vibe touchstones of course) would be reason enough to stick with it. In the end the payoff is sublime, and of course heart-breaking.
This is a film about the absurdity, rush, tension, frustration and futility of addiction. The thrill. The despair. The hitting out at hope and the hopelessness of forever needing to hit (or a hit). It is a film about people being bothered by their unhappiness but unable to see that their actions further inveigle them.
Sandler is mesmerising – no doubt. But so too is the dynamite and dynamic support cast including a mix of heavy-hitting legends and first-timers. Eric Bogosian as brother-in-law loan-shark Arno is of course perfect in the sort of role he eats for a between-meal snack, getting his real fill chewing scenery elsewhere, and Judd Hirsch’s is a sublime cameo as Howard’s father-in-law. The women in Ratner’s life, that would be better off not being in his life, are brilliant character studies thoughtfully sketched by the safe hands of multi-talent Idina Menzel (wife, Dinah) and total newcomer Julia Fox (mistress and employee, Julia De Fiore). If you can’t play yourself then you maybe you cannot play anyone – but Garnett is good as his in-season NBA superstar self; so good that we might expect to see him shining elsewhere as a result.
All of these actors – and more besides – are great. But they’ve been handed the keys to the kingdom with this script and with these writer-producer-director wunderkinds.
I’ve been thinking about Uncut Gems for days – weeks now – since first viewing. I’m ready now to dive back in and go again. It’s, oddly, become its own type of near-addiction for me. I’ve been playing Lopatin’s score on a near loop ever since. It’s both a balm for these times and a reminder of the edge and thrill of this inventive, unique piece of filmmaking.
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