On the rare occasion that Adam Sandler takes on a dramatic role, the opportunity to watch him really flex his well-documented acting muscles (see Punch-Drunk Love), is always a tantalising prospect. Combined with direction from the brilliant Safdie Brothers (Good Time), Uncut Gems, a wild thriller set within New York’s famed Diamond District easily possesses all the ingredients to become a modern classic from the outset.
Uncut Gems’ plot is centred on the charismatic New York jeweller Howard Ratner (Sandler), a down on his luck gambling addict who continually makes risky bets that put both him and his family in potential danger. As the film’s pretty brutal opening touches on the cutthroat world of diamond mining in Ethiopia and how the titular gems end up in the hands of jewellers like Howard, there is absolutely no relenting. Upon receiving an extremely rare black opal, Howard’s attempt to sell it to Boston Celtics star Kevin Garnett sets in motion a rollercoaster chain of events that make this one of the tensest, most anxiety-inducing films perhaps ever, as deals go awry and Howard’s life slowly crumbles before the eyes of the audience.
One of the major plaudits of Uncut Gems is the dedication to immersing the audience into its world, both through incredibly detailed production design and the Safdies’ trademark use of real-life people in their films, who are key in telling the story. As the film is set in 2012, the intricate details to capture this time period really is rather clever, such as the use of time-specific props like an iPhone 3 or the way in which they frame Garnett’s real-life basketball performances in context with the plot, using his obsession over the opal and its ability to supposedly bring him luck as a way to link him to Howard’s ploy to win millions betting on Garnett and the Celtics.
The way in which Howard’s betting is utilised in the film creates an almost gut-wrenching amount of tension, the stakes are always increasing and as each tiny bet or deal inches between success and failure, the weight of Howard’s decisions are truly felt by the audience and this is a testament to the genius of Ronald Bronstein’s and the Safdies’ writing. The script juggles the ever-present tension beautifully alongside douses of humour with sharp, witty and often cynical dialogue as well as sprinkling moments of genuine heartfelt emotion that further connect the audience to Howard and his various pitfalls. The themes and depth of the writing that highlight this crazy world and the impact of gambling addiction is to be applauded, as it constantly asks questions of the audience and their reaction to it is concurrent with the desired effect of the film, for you to deliberately root for things that perhaps you shouldn’t.
On a technical level, Uncut Gems shines as brightly as the opal at the centre of its story. The Safdies’ direction is incredibly assured, telling such a crazy story with confidence whilst retaining their sense of authorship, where on a visual and audial level it is immediately established that this is their film, demonstrating just how effortlessly they seem to have created their own trademark style. Equally, Benny Safdie and Ronald Bronstein’s editing is impossibly slick, serving as the glue that keeps the tension impossibly palpable throughout and is particularly effective in the film’s nail-biting climax as it induces every emotion possible from the audience. Darius Khondji’s grainy, intrusive cinematography is gorgeous and offers further connection to the audience through it’s framing of the characters, whilst offering moments of stylish, dazzling neon-soaked shots that work remarkably just like it did in Good Time.
Daniel Lopatin’s synth-heavy, high-tempo score accompanies the tension effortlessly throughout, though one could argue it is perhaps used a little too much at times and can be somewhat distracting from the dialogue, perhaps the film’s only real pitfall. Equally, one must give props to costume designer Miyako Bellizzi, who creates Howard’s ridiculously good in-your-face look, drenched in dazzlingly bright designer clothes from head to toe that adds an extra layer to an already brilliantly written character.
However, there is one element of Uncut Gems that towers above all else, which is the simply sensational performance by Adam Sandler. As Howard, Sandler reaches his peak with a truly resounding performance, creating a timeless character that you can’t help but root for, even for all his chaotic gambling and extramarital affairs. There is not a single point in the film when you aren’t absolutely desperate for things to go right for Howard, despite his sleazy demeanour, he is a character that Sandler imbues with heart and soul and a humongous amount of charm that resonates with the audience in an almost bizarre way. Sandler hits every character beat with such simplicity, riding the wave of Howard’s everchanging fortunes and really shining when the emotive aspect of the story begins to seep through the cracks of his character. It’s a colossal achievement in acting that should’ve scored Sandler his first Oscar nomination, though this is a performance that will stand the test of time and be revered for years to come, one can only hope we see him in more roles like this in the future.
In Uncut Gems, the Safdie Brothers have an instant classic on their hands, that whilst has been criminally overlooked by the Oscars this year, will definitely leave a lasting impact on cinema for numerous reasons. The Safdies’ directorial talents and trademarks shine through, as does every other technical element, despite the omnipresent score offering somewhat of a distraction from the cracking dialogue at times. Equally, Adam Sandler has turned out a performance so fantastic that it’ll make you crave for more vehicles like this for him to showcase his lofty acting talents. This film is simply unmissable for all the right reasons, even if it’s relentless tension may induce just a smidge of anxiety, it is a fantastic piece of cinema.
Words by Elliott Jones