Uncut Gems’ opening scene conveys everything audiences need to know about the stories that directors, co-writers and brothers Benny and Josh Safdie (the duo behind 2017’s Good Time) like to tell. Shortly after a fellow crew member is gravely injured at their job site, a pair of Ethiopian miners discovers a massive, glimmering opal deep in the recesses of a cave. The shot then proceeds to dive straight into the gem, celestial bursts of light filling the frame until it seems as if we’re traveling through space. Those psychedelic fireworks gradually morph into pulsating sacs of tissue, and the camera exits out from the asshole of one Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a New York City jeweler with a self-destructive penchant for sports betting.
That shot is Uncut Gems in a nutshell: ambitious, vulgar, and obsessed with exploring the crimes self-absorbed men can get away with … until they can’t. The bleak comedic visual demonstrates how these destitute miners and their hardships ultimately serve to benefit some undeserving prick in America. Indeed, Howard has big plans for that opal, plans which involve settling a $100K+ mob debt and winning even more money to, well, put up on a Boston Celtics game. His wife and kids are mostly ignored while his younger mistress (Julia Fox, in an outstanding acting debut) only matters when convenient.
Uncut Gems is aggressively unpleasant in both its overwhelming sound design and the consistently terrible decisions made by Sandler’s anti-hero. It’s bound to leave some people exhausted. This is, to say the least, a film where your mileage will vary. It’s also one of the great movies about Despicable Men, a throwback of sorts to those grimy character studies that often starred Harvey Keitel back in the day (see: Bad Lieutenant, Mean Streets, Fingers).
Director Robert Altman once employed overlapping dialogue to immerse audiences into the warm atmosphere of masterpieces like Nashville and McCabe & Mrs. Miller; the Safdies use the same strategy to create something comparable to taking a hit of crack in the midst of a Category 5 hurricane. Daniel Lopatin’s (aka Oneohtrix Point Never) suffocating electronic score lends a nervous rhythm to Howard’s dangerous juggling act, swindling and / or avoiding every bookie, family member or acquaintance standing between him and his next bet. It’s a feature-length adaptation of the phrase “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” Nonetheless, Uncut Gems offers more than a potent shot of anxiety. For such an unsparing portrait of human ugliness, it contains a deeply spiritual core.
The Safdies enforce the story’s religious principles even as Howard continually ignores his own. Over the course of a few days, Howard’s sins — his shocking capacity for greed and disregard towards others — drag him further into existential peril. Yeah, the criminals to whom he owes money might send some hired goons to bust his kneecaps, but the real toll comes from how increasingly little he matters to those closest to him. Howard’s soon-to-be-ex-wife (Idina Menzel), long since fed up, laughs in his face when he makes a last-ditch attempt at reconciliation. During a Passover ritual with his family, Howard facetiously reads off the 10 plagues God wrought upon Egypt, wholly unaware a judgment day of his own making is fast approaching.
Anyone familiar with Sandler’s previous dramatic work shouldn’t be surprised to learn this performance ranks among the year’s finest. Despite being one of Hollywood’s most recognizable actors, Sandler disappears into the role with ease. His turn as Howard Ratner feels immediately iconic, partly because Sandler’s naturalistic work here suggests he may have played a considerable hand in the character’s creation. His participation is also crucial to the movie’s success: Casting an actor with such inherent charm makes bearable your descent alongside him into the throes of desperation. There’s a sickening thrill in watching someone whose reckless impulses make your own seem non-existent by comparison. Uncut Gems, one of 2019’s best films, proves the Safdie brothers have mastered that art.