After the heady excitement of Good Time, the Safdie Brothers have upped the ante by making a fist-in-the-mouth, unstoppable roller coaster crash of a film.
In German, there’s a word used to capture that very specific type of social embarrassment you feel for others. The word is “peinlich”. This is the word that comes to mind every single time Adam Sandler’s character, Howard Ratner, opens his mouth to proclaim the latest way to relieve himself of some terrible financial predicament. Howard is a jeweller and gambling addict, an almost impossibly dangerous combination of materialistic necessity and addictive precarity that only ever leads Howard down cul-de-sacs from which he struggles to wriggle out of.
We begin the film in Ethiopia, 2010, where we see a rare gem being unearthed by miners. Just before this, a miner has been injured (presumably in a preventable accident) and miners angrily carry the wounded man towards the apparent non-Ethiopian heads of the operation. It’s out-the-blocks chaos, giving us some sense of history to the gem’s discovery, and the exploitation involved in finding such profitable stones for people who see the financial value in them.
Fast-forward, by way of one of the funniest cuts of all time, to 2012. 18 months after its excavation, the Ethiopian Black Opal has found its way into Howard’s possession. As a man needing to pay off large debts to loan shark Arno (Eric Bogosian), Howard has seemingly found a way to clean the slate and then some. But when superstitious basketball player Kevin Garnett (as himself) is entranced by the possible magic power of the gem, he asks to borrow it from Howard for good luck in his next match. Trepidatiously and stupidly, Howard hands over the gem to please the basketball star.
This early example of Howard’s willingness to chance something of great worth in order to reap an additional reward is the first of many where you can’t quite believe how he’s seen the benefit in such a decision. Time after time, scene after scene, Howard bets the precious little leeway he has given himself in the hope that he’ll finally reach the ultimate win. It’s a constant battle he has with himself, teasing his appetite for victory before an orgasm that just won’t come. As an audience member, watching this high octane descent of one’s luck as their addiction grows thirstier by the second, it’s impossible to reckon with the mixture of sadness and excitement presented to us by the Safdies.
Balancing a thriller that gets harder and harder to bear whilst simultaneously becoming more and more impossible to tear your eyes away from is stupendously handled by the sibling directors. Written to within an inch of its life, Uncut Gems is a meticulous ascent to climactic oppression that needs applauding on all accounts. It’s narratively tight, scattered with hilarious one-liners and sitcom-like predicaments, and rounded off with one of the best endings in recent times. The cosmic tapping and shifting of Daniel Lopatin’s score make everything we’re witnessing even harder to settle with, often matching Howard’s optimism instead of bending to the beating we’re all about to take.
Sandler has been praised heavily for his performance (rightfully so) and return to “serious acting” but it’s a disservice to just how funny he is in this to call this a serious performance. His delivery, when unpackaging the Black Opal, of “Holy shit, I’m gonna cum.” is a masterclass in blissed-out satisfaction. A deliriously absent stare, matched by a creeping, unknowing grin—this is an all-time classic line-delivery.
In Uncut Gems we’ve been gifted with what feels like a modern classic New York thriller, one that deals in religious and superstition vs materialism and addiction, and how they all complement and contradict each other, existing to better one another, and how it is we can manage the otherworldly optimism of superstition and the tangible uncertainty of gambling. It’s all chance, it’s all a ducking of logic but we can’t help but indulge in the thrill of the game.
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Long and incompetent man who is being allowed to write about films you can watch from your bed.