Uncut Gems is a pulsating, heart attack of a movie. There were multiple times I was so nervous, I couldn’t look at the screen. The movie’s only respite is the opening section where we are introduced to a diamond unearthed in Ethiopia. After that, co-writers and directors Benny & Josh Safdie give you no quarter. It’s one obliterating scene after another. All the way until it’s volcanic finish. Either you will be turned off by how unbelievably relentless Uncut Gems is or you’ll be tossed onto this rollercoaster that is in continuous free fall.
Uncut Gems is the story of Howard (Adam Sandler). He’s a jeweler in New York’s Diamond District. A street filled with all kinds of shops devoted to jewelry and the sorts. Howard is an addict. He’s addicted to gambling. To the rush. To the high of compulsion. He needs it. When the film begins, he’s already in debt to a few bad guys who are sick of waiting to get what’s owed to them. One of them is his brother-in-law Arno, played by the great Eric Bogosian.
“This is how I win.”
Howard employs Demany (LaKeith Stanfield) to bring in clients for jewelry. When we meet him, he brings Kevin Garnett (played by himself) to Howard. He’s in search of some new bling. Howard shows him a new uncut diamond that just arrived (hidden in a giant fish). Garnett convinces Howard, against his better wishes, to let him borrow the gem. He believes it’ll make him play better during the NBA playoffs. Howard agrees but he wants Garnett’s NBA Finals ring as insurance. Garnett agrees.
Howard immediately pawns the Celtics ring minutes later to get money to make a bet on the same game Garnett is playing in. This is where the walls start to close in on Howard. From here, it’s all downhill for him. Howard soon has to navigate one dark and nefarious situation after another. Violence and death are around every turn. Haunting him. Stalking him.
It’s midway through the movie where the Safdies put their film into overdrive and from then on if you have a weak heart, good luck to you. This film never lets up. The Safdies manufacture their film to create absolute chaos for the viewer. They told their actors they have free will to interrupt each other, talk over one another, ad-lib dialogue and cursing. They once again team up with Oneohtrix Point Never mastermind Daniel Lopatin to create a dizzying and mesmerizing electronic score. They’re editing is pandemonium. All of this is designed to create a state of panic and anxiety.
“Garnett’s a stone, you know that.”
I have never experienced a movie that made my chest hurt so much from anxiety. Hours after the film ended, I laid in bed and my body was physically ill. I was completely wrapped up in Howard’s (self-inflicted) plight. Which brings us to Sandler. Howard is not a good person. He’s actually quite terrible. He gambles excessively, cheats on his wife with his mistress who also has an apartment he pays for. But why do we care so much about Howard? Why did I have emotional and physical reactions to every twist and turn he had to get out of? It’s because of Adam Sandler. Sandler turns in the role of his life. Everything Sandler has been doing has led him to this point.
You can say what you want about the films that most people love and that brought him great fame. Some are good, most are awful. But that isn’t the point. The point is that Sandler and his goofy, dim-witted persona are ubiquitous and we all love some part of that persona. Whether it’d be Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore or Big Daddy. And it’s that persona, the one we’re conditioned to, we get wrapped up in. It’s also an incredible performance. This is no gimmick. This isn’t “well, he comes off good here because he’s bad in most other stuff.” Nuh-uh. This is a legitimate career-defining performance from Sandler. Oscar-worthy, in my opinion.
“I disagree. I disagree.”
Roger Ebert once said you can tell the quality of a filmmaker by looking at performances by characters in the background or the peripherals. By that measurement, the Safdies are masters. There are many sequences where characters say so much, not by their words, but by their faces and their reactions. It’s sort of remarkable.
As for the Safdies themselves, they have arrived at the big show. This is a massive breakout for them. I haven’t seen their first couple of films, but with Heaven Knows What, Good Time and now this, the possibilities will be plentiful. People were taking note before, but now the Safdies have kicked open the door. It just took some hard work and a little bit of magic from the Sandman to get them there. This is an excruciating, pulverizing experience. It’s also one of the year’s best. Uncut Gems is remarkable.
Overall Score 4/5