NBA star Kevin Garnett, The Weeknd, and Adam Sandler star in one of the tensest films of the year.
Uncut Gems follows Howard Ratner, portrayed by Adam Sandler, a morally ambiguous, New York City jeweller (and profligate gambler) through an uncomfortable descent into madness and chaos. Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie, the film is anxiety. Pure anxiety, and adrenaline, to say the very LEAST (I capitalise this to emphasise that if you have a heart condition, you should second guess watching this film).
The film’s opening sequence depicts the poor working conditions and exploitation of Ethiopian mines in 2010, in which we see a severely injured miner surrounded by a mob of enraged workers while overseers remain ambivalent to the chaos. Providing a perfect distraction, two rogue workers escape to the caves to steal a gem. The camera then plunges into the jewel embedded within the stone of the cave - a raw black opal to be specific - and the title star, and as we delve through the gem and its molecular components, the camera emerges two years later in Howard’s colonoscopy scan in America. Writing this review, I realise the absurdity of this opening molecular endeavour, and of much of the material which follows within the film. Yet this opening sequence completely cements the tone, as the Safdie brothers break-neck pacing and unforgiving vision pays off as the viewer is guided with raw enthusiasm and purpose throughout the unravelling narrative.
The opal arrives at Howard's Diamond District jewellery store hidden within the guts of a fish, indicating for the viewer the credibility of jeweller Ratner himself. Howard aims to auction the uncut gem, which he claims is worth a million dollars. However, after letting Boston Celtics basketball star Kevin Garnett (starring as himself) inspect the gem, who believes it to be a token of good luck, Howard loans the gem to Garnett in return for his championship ring.
The film spirals from this decision, as Ratner’s chain of gambling, loaning, pawning and debt becomes prevalent. Every decision or transaction made by Howard regarding money is a poor one, and if a monetary decision succeeds, Howard quickly follows it with another poor decision or investment. Howard is insatiable when it comes to money and, as a result of this dissatisfaction, is rarely rewarded. The films closing crescendo of tension in my opinion, is a rare perfect conclusion to a film.
Throughout the film, there’s barely one moment of quiet, as loud, overlapping bickering occurs constantly either between Howard and his associates, his disgruntled wife (Frozen star Idina Menzel) or his mistress (Julia Fox). If a rare moment of silence presents itself, Daniel Lopatin’s 1980s synth-infused score works perfectly to depict the retro video game-esque, final battle-impending unease.
The cast is mesmerising. Sandler is genuinely outstanding and utterly transforms into the central character. Proving to thrive in an extremely gritty and unlikeable role, I couldn’t help but equate him to fellow comedian Steve Carell’s work in more serious films like Little Miss Sunshine (2006) or Foxcatcher (2014). Like Carell, hopefully Sandler finds confidence in this break of genre and has more gems to follow. Guest appearances by Kevin Garnett and rapper The Weeknd subvert the usual light-hearted celebrity-cameo terrifically.
The opening of this film, which I mentioned at the start of this review, may seem absurd initially. He explains later on that a great deal of his paranoia stems from a family history of colon-cancer related deaths. Upon reflection, this is the only time we ever truly see Ratner seriously concerned for his own wellbeing, and becomes ironic when juxtaposed with his constant risky behaviour. His motives are, centrally, chasing the “American Dream” over anything else, including his own health, faith and family. Ratner represents the damage of the capitalist ideology pedalled within American society, especially in the attempt to regain profit following the colossal fallout of a post-2008 Wall Street crash. As a result, Uncut Gems is perhaps one of the most anxiety-inducing, frustrating, frenzied but rewarding films you’ll watch this year. Strap yourself in.