3 out of 5
Directed by: Josh and Benny Safdie
One of the opening shots of Uncut Gems segues from a zoom-in on an opal – gorgeous color washes; surreal whorls – to the fleshy, wet interior of the bowels via the camera used during an endoscopy. It’s not a smooth or subtle transition – viewers will recognize the medical-style footage – and I’d assume it’s not intended to be; it’s a shift between two types of organic surroundings, and our perceptions of those. It’s our first introduction to Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a diamond-dealer in New York; a gambler affected by these jarring perceptional shifts as he moves from high to low and deal to deal.
Prior to this, we start with the discovery of this opal in some African mines. I’m sure I’m making this up, by the reverent and ominous treatment of this discovery put me in mind of The Exorcist – something that could be said to be another touchpoint, in a way: testing faith; possessions.
Thereafter, Uncut Gems unleashes about two hours worth of Ratner making questionable decisions and swearing up a storm, roving from his tiny, barricaded, special-clientele jewelry shop to the streets of NY below, pinging between bookies and pawn shops and auctions and wherever else he can juggle his goods in order to make some quick(-ish) cash to pay off a loan shark, Arno (Eric Bogosian) and soothe his burly thugs. Ratner procures the aforementioned opal, and – with flagrant language and a twinkle in his eye – talks up a mystical, decades-spanning origin of the thing, excited by its potentially million dollar pricetag. He’s relating this story to NBA star Kevin Garnett, playing himself (ushered in by Lakeith Stanfield’s Demany, partially Howard’s cronie but also a fast-talking player in his own regard), and then, when Garnett asks if he can “borrow” the opal as a good luck charm for a game… Howard says yes.
This is the first of several times that a viewer might wonder what’s going on in Howard’s head; how he could possibly imagine that some deal or bet to which he’s committed himself is possibly a good idea. Directors / co-writers (Ronald Bronstein filling a third co-writer position) play with this a bit: immediately after releasing the opal to Garnett, with the latter offering a game ring as collateral, Howard, all smiles, goes and pawns the ring to get some immediate cash. Ah, okay – so he must be an infinitely calculating schemer, and he’s got the long game sussed out, and these two hours will be back-and-forths where every corner into which he’s shoved turns out to be one he’s accounted for.
That’s not the case.
Howard simply exists on the rush, and every downturn of his “fortunes” only lasts until he can make the next deal. It’s an addiction, but Uncut Gems isn’t about a slippery slope or downward spiral – Howard can hit bottom, but not really: a phone call or a winning ticket coming in just means he’s instantly on top again. The cronies still loom large: the movie can really only end one of two ways, winning or losing, and the Safdie’s rather ingeniously find a way to subvert that… But the journey to get there can be a test. Sandler is undeniably a force of energy in the role, and the tension of scenes when he’s suddenly down to a last dollar with a thug waving a threat in his peripheral is nearly unbearable. At the same time, there are plenty of scenes that don’t quite seem necessary to present this character, and while I can understand them as representations of his indulgences, or the way his emotions only exist as momentary impulses, I felt like I “got” the movie pretty quickly, and everything thereafter was belaboring the point. The Safdies’ “Good Time” employed a similar roving sensibility, letting its characters sort of roll through the story but also keeping a fast-forward button held down, so it feels like we’re both moving and standing still, but Good Time had a bit more meat to its characters, whereas Howard is almost purposefully one-note, and his actions just iterations on the same dumb decisions and high-stakes gambles. And, personally, I didn’t think Daniel Lopatin‘s soundtrack was a great match, the electronic burbles working well to juxtapose some of the more tense sequences, but feeling too slick and 80s glossy for much of the rest.
However, Uncut Gems is never boring. It’s always on the move, and just like Howard, despite the viewer being exposed to the characters’ less-great qualities, we end up wanting to see him succeed, or wanting to see if he can succeed, and gripping our chairs or gritting our teeth each time he pulls ahead, only to double-down with those winnings on something even chancier. Given how well the Safdies draw this to a conclusion, I only wish there was a more boiled down version of the flick, making it into a killer character study instead of a wandering one.