The Safdie brothers (Josh and Benny) have already made a name for themselves in the indie world with early work such as “Daddy Longlegs” and “Heaven Knows What”, In 2017, they gained large notoriety for their stunning feature “Good Time”, starring Robert Pattinson. Their latest feature, “Uncut Gems” is not only their finest film to date, but it’s the most exhilarating piece of cinema all year.
Adam Sandler stars as Howard Ratner, a jeweler in NYC’s Diamond District in 2012. His life is a mess. Howard is a compulsive gambler, looking to score big at any moment regardless of the consequences. He’s soon to be divorced from his wife (Idina Menzel) and lives with his mistress (newcomer Julia Fox) with whom he works with. Howard owes hundreds of thousands of dollars to loan sharks all across NYC including his ruthless brother-in-law (Eric Bogosian). When Kevin Garnett shows up at Howard’s shop one day, infatuated by an uncut Ethiopian opal recently delivering to Howard that’s said to be worth almost $1,000,000, Howard lets him borrow the opal in exchange for Garnett’s championship ring as collateral. From there, Howard’s toxic lifestyle begins to crash around him as his greed and wrongdoings follow him at every moment.
For anyone who thought “Good Time” was a nerve-shredding experience, “Uncut Gems” is a different beast entirely. Running at 135 minutes, “Uncut Gems” runs at a breakneck pace that doesn’t feel overstuffed or incoherent. This isn’t your usual falling domino’s narrative as seen before with films like “After Hours” and “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie”. Impeccably edited by Benny Safdie and co-writer Ronald Bronstein, the tension gradually builds until you can’t possibly bare it anymore and your anxiety reaches maximum heights. Every scene is essential here as we can feel the noose slowly but surely tighten with every passing minute.
This film wouldn’t work nearly as well without a commanding star and Adam Sandler has never been better. Using his natural charisma to winning effect, Sandler truly dissolves into the character of Howard. It’s through his performance that we actually root for Howard until the very end. He’s an addict, he’s mean, he’s a liar, he’s callous and his own worst enemy. On paper, this is a woefully unlikable character, but Sandler’s performance is so rich and layered, there’s no way you help yourself from wanting him to succeed in the end. It’s a tour de force performance that will be remembered for decades to come. It’s not just Sandler who impresses, though. The entire supporting cast is simply astonishing.
Idina Menzel, showing her grittier side compared to her most recent work, is compelling as Howard’s estranged wife. Saying so much with just a fleeting glance, Menzel has a ferocity to her that is palpable, particularly in her mono y mono scenes with Sandler. She is the only voice of reason, which is why Howard consistently ignores her. He lives in his own bubble, afraid of the actual truth of reality.
Newcomer Julia Fox steals much of her screentime. In her first ever acting role, Fox has an authentic star quality to her that is unshakable. Not unlike Marisa Tomei in “My Cousin Vinny” or Margot Robbie in “The Wolf of Wall Street”, Fox, along with the smart screenplay, elevates what could’ve been a simplistic, second fiddle type role. She commands every frame and shows that she is a powerhouse performer to be reckoned with.
LaKeith Stanfield is reliably exceptional as Demany, Howard’s assistant who handles his high-profile clients. Kevin Garnett proves himself to be a gifted screen presence, even if he is playing himself. Garnett has a vital role in the film and he feels just as natural as every actor around him. Eric Bogosian is menacing, yet subtle as Howard’s threatening brother-in-law. The Weekend — clearly having a blast briefly playing a heightened version of his womanizing, drug-addled persona — has a memorable cameo in one of the films best sequences.
The Safdies are juggling a great deal here and they never once drop the ball. The frenetic storytelling is loud and aggressive, but never punishing. Keeping its many pieces together in a coherent fashion is a high-wire act, not unlike Howard’s priorities, and it is enthralling from start to finish. The Safdies wear their inspirations on their sleeves, taking elements of Robert Altman, John Cassavetes, Martin Scorsese (an Executive Producer of the film) and Paul Thomas Anderson, but the brothers’ style never feels derivative. Mixing so many different elements, with bits of comedy, drama, some crime thriller aspects and top-tier suspense; this is the work of next generation auteurs.
This isn’t style over substance, either. This is a raw depiction of addiction and the self-destructive nature that comes with it. There’s a growing sense of melancholy that follows the intensity as we realize nothing will ever be enough for Howard. He wants the entire world and he will swallow up everything he loves or hates around him to get to it. The Safdies don’t shy away from this nor the emotion that comes with the journey.
The cinematography by Darius Khondji elevates the grit and anxiety of the film with its unique visual language. The camera seemingly never stays still and the grainy, 35mm footage feels like it comes straight out of the early 80’s with its unpolished, lively look. The score by Daniel Lopatin (AKA Oneohtrix Point Never) blends in perfectly with the film and is boasted by a killer soundtrack.
“Uncut Gems” is a fully realized, breakneck cinematic experience. It’s the type of anxiety-inducing, endorphin-raising film that only comes along once in a great while. It leaves you on such a high, it’ll take hours for you to come back down to earth. The Safdies have truly put themselves among the lists of giants. If you want pure, unfiltered cinema at its finest, “Uncut Gems” is at the top of the list. What other film gives you Adam Sandler brawling with The Weeknd set to “Swimming Pools” by Kendrick Lamar?