Every time I read about Josh and Benny Safdie’s Uncut Gems it either has to do with the relentless tension or the truly great Adam Sandler performance at its core. While both are reason enough to go watch the film on the big screen, this isn’t just a tense and well-performed feature. It also serves as a wonderful allegory to the constant hustle that we all must endure, that feeling that we are reaching our limit and we aren’t sure how much we can take. The Safdie brothers have managed to make a thriller more interested in the hypocrisy of its central character, the ways in which he proves to be his own worst enemy and yet how a broken, sleazy and morally bankrupt person can still be brilliant and lucky at the same time.
Telling the story of Jewish jeweller Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a man who is constantly pulling one over on the people around him so that he and his family can continue living in luxury. When he manages to get ahold of a rare black opal he intends to sell for a major payoff he thinks he has finally made it and can clear off all his debts in one. However, when he lends the jewel to NBA star Kevin Garnett he must get it back so that his payday actually comes to fruition.
Much like with Jonah Hill’s Mid90s, the Safdie brothers film is shot in grainy detail but instead of alluding to the past and the nostalgia of a community, here it paints a picture of a world that is dirty and squalid, even under the bright fluorescent lights of Howard’s world. Here the world of jewellery is just as dangerous, just as unrelenting as the mining that brings life to this tale. This bright yet messy look makes Howard feel more like an underdog, a bit player in a world full of big fish, making the notion of anything working out for this New York hustler seem increasingly unlikely.
The way the film interweaves multiple different threats while never explaining their severity only ramps up the tension of a film designed to suck all the air out of proceedings. Glimpses of outcomes that never come to pass play like extended jump scares that never really let up. Forcing you to squirm as not only does Howard face recurring threats that only seem to become more forceful but new ones emerge out of nowhere to raise your blood pressure. Culminating in a finale that feels both muted and uncompromising, Sandler manages to make moments of quiet contemplation feel like anything could happen.
In fact, Uncut Gems is a brutal experience almost entirely because of some clever and unexpected editing choices by Ronald Bronstein and a luminous central performance by Sandler, who commits to the unpleasant, two-faced nature of Howard while ensuring that this is still a person worth caring about beyond mindless curiosity. The moments he spends with Julia (Julia Fox), his girlfriend, not only bring out more of the desperation that emanates constantly but the sense of a man trying to be taken seriously, not only by his work community but by the family that have come to see through his bullshit. Unlike anything he has done before, Sandler hasn’t been this good since his moody work in Reign Over Me.
A bold, unpleasant and impressive viewing experience, Uncut Gems begs to be watched in a group so you can all feel deeply unsettled together. The best part is that following a short run in cinemas it has since hit Netflix, so you can all fidget uncomfortably together.