**** out of ****
(for pervasive strong language, strong violence, some sexual content, and brief drug use)
Released: December 25, 2019
Runtime: 135 minutes
Directed by: Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie
Starring: Adam Sandler, Julia Fox, LaKeith Stanfield, Kevin Garnett, Eric Bogosian, Idina Menzel, Judd Hirsch, Keith Williams Richards
Never in my life have I had anything “big” riding on a bet, especially at a level that, if I lost, it would absolutely destroy me. Watching Uncut Gems is the closest I’ve ever come to experiencing what that must feel like. Dear Lord, talk about being scared straight – and by Adam Sandler, no less.
New York brothers Benny and Josh Safdie (the writer/directors behind the Robert Pattinson druggie crime thriller Good Time) seem to be making movies in a parallel universe. Their stories are set in our reality but they exist psychically on an entirely different plain. It’s as if their films are produced in another dimension and then distributed through a portal back into ours. It’s the only explanation I have for what I see.
Having now crossed the rubicon into Uncut Gems and returned to declare its exhilarating genius, it seems as if a cinephilic shrine should be built around whatever portal the Safdies sent it through. Gritty, imaginative, frenzied, and ruthlessly pulsating, it’s a landmark calling card on the level of Martin Scorsese’s breakthrough Mean Streets.
Its filmmakers are so aesthetically forward-thinking and boundary-pushing that they may never win any Oscars themselves but are likely to inspire others who eventually do. Future awards gold is sure to be won by mimicking the Safdie’s current mastery when it inevitably becomes the norm.
The narrative hook of this thing is brilliant, a fictitious fever dream predicated on a real-life hot streak by Boston Celtic legend Kevin Garnett, which occurred in 2012. Garnett plays himself as he becomes obsessed with borrowing a rare, valuable Precious Opal that Sandler’s Howard Ratner (a professional if shady jeweler in New York’s elite Diamond District) has recently acquired. Garnett, who displays some legitimate acting chops, is convinced that having this raw rock in his possession – which is valued at over one million dollars – will bring him luck.
In this obsession, Howard Ratner sees a huge opportunity.
Seizing on Garnett’s fixation, Ratner strikes a deal with the all-star to leverage a multi-layered Ponzi scheme that would land him the biggest score of his life, concocting it all on the fly. In the process, Ratner looks to finally get a threatening loan shark off his back by squaring the mountain of gambling debts he owes.
That intriguing premise doesn’t so much launch into a plot as it does catapult us into Ratner’s crazy, reckless world, one where each exponential risk (whether financial or personal) feeds his adrenaline. And of course, it all spirals out of control. What’s so mesmerizing is that instead of serving as a sobering wake-up call, the escalating dangers fuel Ratner to even more perilous extremes.
Uncut Gems descends with manic artistry (from Darius Khondji’s kinetic, colorful camerawork to the breakneck rhythms of editors Benny Safdie and Ronald Bronstein, all driven by Daniel Lopatin’s hypnotic, stylistically ambitious score) as Ratner keeps stacking his deck of cards, living too far out on the edge as it all starts to catch up with him. Drugs are not one of Ratner’s vices, but the Safdie brothers tell his story with the momentum of a sustained cocaine rush – hyper, jacked, and chaotic.
Whether placing dangerous bets with literal cash and collateral or hazarding ones just as precarious in his personal life – between a wife (Idina Menzel) he doesn’t want to divorce and a mistress (Julia Fox) he can’t quit – Ratner has a compulsive need to push his luck in absolutely everything, even in small, unnecessary ways. He’s an utter train wreck of a man that is somehow in complete control of his world…until, of course, he isn’t.
Sandler gives the year’s most captivating performance, chucking his stock go-to Bobby Boucher variation for a fully realized, self-possessed creation. His Ratner is a smooth wheeler-and-dealer who cajoles and commands with a particular Jewish swagger, transcending the surface schtick that has defined most of his career with a complex psychosis and moral sociopathy.
Ratner takes risks well beyond all sensible measure, not because he doesn’t know when to quit but because he actually thrives on living from one adrenaline rush to the next. Sandler incarnates this whirlwind with an unrelenting commitment.
Uncut Gems is absolute insanity, running full-tilt across a high wire at all times, but it’s more than just a relentlessly overwhelming genre trip (which would be more than enough). The Safdies skirt artistic pretense with a sincere effort to imbue this story of a deeply flawed, tragic figure with genuine empathy but they never (and I mean never) pull any punches.
The end result will polarize and is never cathartic, but it’s what makes the Safdie Brothers a force – and filmmakers to be reckoned with.