Uncut Gems, the latest film from directing brother duo Benny and Josh Safdie, fully personifies their signature directing style of fast paced, high risk, higher reward, and sheer discomfort in every scene once Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is introduced. Their previous film, Good Time embodies that same style but with Uncut Gems the volume, the anxiety and panic is turned all the way up to the point that all feeling is lost when watching the events play out over the course of 2 days in Howards high stakes like.
Howard is not a good person whatsoever. He’s a chronic gambler, liar, cheater – swindling and double crossing every person he encounters. It’s embedded in his DNA to be a piece of shit without a second thought to his actions. Below the surface of his toxic personality there is hope, it’s not much but it’s there. Some moments you want to root for Howard and really believe he wants to do good by his brother-in-law Arno (Eric Bogosian) and pay back his debt. But then in the next scene that feeling subsides and Howard does something stupid like place a larger bet on the NBA playoffs and suffers the consequences when his plan fails. Everyone in Howards life loathes him, some more than others but all cannot say one nice thing about him – maybe Julia (Julia Fox) can, Howard’s mistress. And Adam Sandler uses that to his advantage in his portrayal of Howard.
Given the right material like with the Safdie brothers script, Sandler is a force of nature giving an academy level performance but was snubbed when nominations were announced. This is one of the best performances of 2019. With how serious a role this is for Sandler, there is still a bit of humor injected into the script that Sandler can feel more comfortable with. He can’t be buried with his mistress because of his name tattooed firmly on her.
The black opal, which drives this story to its destination is Howard’s holy grail, he puts this opal estimated at 1 million above his own family. He is not a decent person.
What the Safdie brothers achieve with Uncut Gems is the strong feeling of a panic attack that could cripple you at any moment during this film. That high level of anxiousness is not a fun feeling when watching a film but for the atmosphere and environment that Howard lives in, it’s perfect. The world Benny and Josh create peels back the layers of the gentrified Manhattan to the underbelly of the diamond district where lights don’t get shined often. At first glance appearances can be deceiving, maybe the Safdie brothers are exploiting this environment for a gain but really, they are exposing people like Howard. People like Howard exist in the real world, this isn’t a fantasy land that is made up to fit the character, this is how some people win – cheating the system and everyone they “love’ for monetary gain.
How Benny and Josh create the induced panic, anxiety and tension comes directly from their screenplay. The constant dialogue (screaming, controlled and uncontrolled fury), background noise and quick cut pacing is meant to disorient the viewer. They’re successful in that sense but to the five senses seeing this thrill ride over the course of 135 minutes can be overwhelming especially within each scene five minutes fells like an hour. Even with the fast-pacing Benny and Josh can slow things down so we can catch our breath collectively. Two scenes come to mind – the Passover dinner in which the tension is as high with Arno reveled as Howard’s family and When Howard unsuccessfully attempts to talk to his daughter Marcel (Noa Fisher) who hates him equally or even more than her mother Dinah (Idina Menzel).
It’s one thing to piss off family, make them lose all trust in you as a provider and father figure but to do that to complete strangers with larger amounts of money on the line is another. One of Howard’s worst traits besides being a narcissist is being a pushover – doing anything to get Kevin Garnett (Himself) to like him is the biggest risk Howard takes. It destroys his professional relationship with Demany (LaKeith Stanfield) in an intense scene while a million different things are happening all at once. Shocking the system the way the Safdie Brothers do for so long may not be the best route to take but they make it work because that’s the whole point of the film. Benny and Josh want that discomfort, that queasy feeling in the pit of your stomach, they thrive on it. It separates Benny and Josh from other filmmakers that have been successful in the thriller genre.
Every risk Howard takes gets bigger, but the reward shrinks with every bet he places. You would think, Howard would learn from his mistakes but the thrill for him never ebbs. If he didn’t have glasses on, I bet Howard would walk around with money signs as a replacement. How he can live the lifestyle he does – a house on Long Island (One of the most expensive places to live), an apartment in Manhattan for him and Julia (even more expensive) and the clothes, the parties – it’s no wonder he’s in a severe amount of debt that gets piled onto with every scene.
Uncut Gems thrives on the shock and awe aspect to a thriller. Benny and Josh Safdie prove that they can make a feeling of uncomfortable panic and induced anxiety out of nothing and be successful at it. One of the best aspects of Uncut Gems is the sheer fat that there is no destination for this film. And with that, the unpredictability will be the most nuanced element behind the characters that live, breathe, and take advantage of everyday life in the corrupt diamond district in Manhattan.
The score alone Darius Khondji (Panic Room, Se7en) is enough to make a pulse quicken and pump anxiety in the veins. It’s a brilliant score that keeps the intensity high.
Uncut Gems is written by Josh & Benny Safdie and Ronald Bronstein, directed by Josh and Benny Safdie is Rated R and has a 91% on Rotten Tomatoes. Uncut Gems was released on December 25, 2019 in the United States and has a runtime of 2 hours and 15 minutes. Uncut Gems can be streamed on Netflix or bought from online retailers like iTunes, Amazon, and Google. 4.5 out of 5.