Brimming with anxious energy, Josh and Benny Safdie’s latest feature is a densely packed medley of memorable lines, characters and debut acting performances. Reminiscent of their previous outing – GOOD TIME – UNCUT GEMS nevertheless applies the anxiety-inducing approach polished there in new and interesting ways.
Adam Sandler leads as Howard Ratner, a jeweller in New York City’s Diamond District with a penchant for high-stakes deals and gambling. In a prologue we are introduced, by way of the human misery it has already caused, to a black opal from Ethiopia. Howard has purchased this stone with the intention of auctioning it for a potential seven-figure sum. Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), who recruits clients for Howard in exchange for storage of questionably sourced watches, brings in Kevin Garnett (playing himself) of the Boston Celtics. In awe of the opal, Garnett convinces Howard to let him keep the gem overnight in exchange for his NBA championship ring as collateral, believing the opal confers mystical abilities onto him. Howard has a habit of pawning client belongings as part of a precarious daisy chain of deals, cash, and gambling – and his latest gambit starts off a chain reaction he must try to outrun.
Much like GOOD TIME, which probably brought on more anxiety headaches than any other film released in 2017, there is rarely a calm moment in UNCUT GEMS. At every stage something is unravelling for our protagonist – whether it is his latest bet, someone screwing him over, his family life, his various dodgy business deals, or his relationship with extra-marital girlfriend Julia (Julia Fox). Beyond the excellent performances and the jittery filming style, the music of Daniel Lopatin polishes this prism of anxiety through which we interpret the characters. Similar to the use of the music in GOOD TIME, the strange collection of synth-like curios feels like an uplifting nightmare; the sort of fog of pain and terror which is endured for the supposed pot of gold at the end of its shit-strewn rainbow.
“…the strange collection of synth-like curios feels like an uplifting nightmare; the sort of fog of pain and terror which is endured for the supposed pot of gold at the end of its shit-strewn rainbow.”
Adam Sandler is reliably excellent in the lead role, retaining sympathy even as his self-destructive and opportunistic behaviour drags more disaster into his world. Howard is a role that demonstrates Sandler’s curious versatility and duality – on the one hand he is denigrated critically for enormously popular but reductive comedies, on the other he is lauded for blackly comedic drama roles in critically lauded independent work. And never the twain shall meet, apparently. Nevertheless, the on-screen likability that makes many of his comedies tolerable is also what gives him the depth to play the likes of Howard Ratner, Danny Meyerowitz or PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE’s Barry Egan.
The Safdies’ film also highlights their capability in eliciting engaging and charismatic performances from debut actors. Julia Fox is an energetic whirlwind and does significant work during the film’s concluding movements. When Sandler isn’t on screen she carries the nervous energy of the film. Kevin Garnett moves between rich exuberance and calm dignity with ease, much more easily than any recent NBA player should be expected to (and more so than anyone familiar with the screen career of Shaquille O’Neal has a right to anticipate).
“UNCUT GEMS achieves many things, including weaving a compelling tale of addict behaviour augmented and elevated by all the aforementioned elements.”
UNCUT GEMS achieves many things, including weaving a compelling tale of addict behaviour augmented and elevated by all the aforementioned elements. The film communicates Howard’s anxiety for his next high, his joy in achieving it, and the crushing despair of failing or having the rug pulled from under him. UNCUT GEMS behaves like a wounded great white shark, constantly moving forward lest it dies, but bleeding out nonetheless. It does this, however, with less kinetic style than GOOD TIME: a film that was often found tracking Robert Pattinson at high speed down streets and around corners. UNCUT GEMS is much more at home jittering nervously in enclosed, claustrophobic spaces like Howard’s car, his double-locked jewellery store, or crowded black-lit nightclubs.
The Safdies have not conferred mystical powers onto their film, but like the black opal at its heart, UNCUT GEMS will transfix the viewer by reflecting something a little different back at you depending on what angle you consider it from.