The Safdie brothers have been a couple of filmmakers to watch out for, with their complex narratives and intricate visuals. Their most mainstream hit Good Time (2017) was able to make it into a semi-wide release, allowing niche audiences to see siblings’ talent. The success of that film allowed them to take bigger swings, and thus we have the exhilarating Uncut Gems (2019).
Uncut Gems follows Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) a jewel dealer in the Diamond District of New York in 2012. Howard is a man with a particular addiction to gambling, specifically in sporting bets. Over the course of the film we begin to see how a conflagration of people coming in to collect debts from him, the tracking of an uncut opal from Ethiopia, and his own familial problems make for a perfect storm.
Good Time proved to be a thrilling ride, but it seemed to put more of an emphasis on its style rather than the its story. Uncut Gems moves is able to further a maturity in the brothers, to create an incredibly complex narrative, which juggles so many plot points that one is amazed they manage to come together by the film’s end. Because of this incredible chaos and crowding, we rarely get to hear just one character speak at a time, it is always a raucous argument with three separate conversations going on at the same time; this adds to the incredible feeling of claustrophobia that the film ends up inducing. Despite that, the film never loses the clarity of its objective, the anxiety over Howard’s self-destructive decisions are built up steadily with a clever hand towards an absolutely epic and inevitable climax.
The Safdie brothers are forced to contend with a wide array of characters and threads, but they manage to arrange them into a magnetic and thrilling ride. Their greatest challenge, which they pull off, is keeping a constant beat of tension that seems to be constantly pushing its limit; it completely keeps viewers on the edge of their seats. But the greatest achievement in Uncut Gems, is not the ability to envelop viewers in tension, but to bring out such incredible performances from the most unlikely of casts.
All the characters in Uncut Gems are shown in an unflattering light, in a way that makes them seem selfish and human at the same time; this allows for the glorification of certain figures, such as minor roles for singer The Weekend and basketball star Kevin Garnet to feel incredibly bold and alluring. The cast of this film would seem to indicate a rom-com of sorts; you have Sandler as well as Idina Menzel playing his wife, and the aforementioned cameos from Garnett and The Weekend. The genius of these casting choices, however, is in how they play against their type, so that viewers are able to sweep away each performer’s reputation and able to see the clear-cut story. I was particularly wowed with Garnett, who could easily have an acting career after his recent basketball retirement from what was seen here. Julia Fox should also be commended, playing Howard’s mistress and co-worker, she is able to channel a seeming caricature for viewers’ enjoyment while also adding a human layer; surprisingly making her one of the most realistic characters in the film. Sandler, meanwhile, brings us the most dramatic change of his career. Most known for fronting his own ridiculous comedies, Sandler only dipped his toes in drama briefly in Punch-Drunk Love (2002). However, even that Paul Thomas Anderson film played more to his strengths of schlubby romantic interest. Uncut Gems brings us a Sandler no one could have guessed existed, he completely transforms into the fast-talking and wise-cracking Howard; completely delving into the choking rhythm of the narrative. Uncut Gems is also able to keep a rather comedic undertone, many in part thanks to Sandler’s contributions, which add just another complex layer of enjoyment into the story.
In the end, Uncut Gems is able to keep its objectives and style simple enough; choosing to put its intricacies and complexities in the throttling plot. The result is a Safdie’s brothers masterpiece, which absolutely grabs you and never lets go until its final shot. Sandler and the rest of the unlikely cast deliver more than one could possibly have expected of them, making Uncut Gems one of the best films of the year.