From Ethiopia, With Gems: The latest film from NYC indie phenoms Josh and Benny Safdie opens with an unlikely sequence set in northern Ethiopia. We see an injured miner with an excruciating leg break being carried by his fellow workers, and then follow two laborers as they slip away to the mine to chip at whatever treasure lies in the midst of all the chaos. The prologue recalls William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, a movie that similarly (and ominously) opens in a foreign land before transporting the viewer to America. Granted, Uncut Gems is not be a horror movie in the traditional sense, but it is a harrowing, intense watch, one that rivals the best of the genre in the amount of sheer nerve-shattering tension it exudes.
Anyways, back to the movie: What those two miners find is a huge gem, and as they hold it up in all its glory for the audience, the camera moves closer and closer until we actually delve within, traveling through the opal until all we see are cosmic particles floating in the abyss. As the score hypnotically swells, the camera continues gliding until we reach more familiar sights, and ultimately emerge from the asshole of jeweler Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) circa 2012. Mind you, this invasive medical procedure is about as good it as gets for the guy, who’s about to experience a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad couple of days. Any worries about his colon will soon take backseat to more urgent matters.
This transfixing opening, whether you know it or not upon first viewing, cleverly sets the stage for the entire trajectory of the film. The visual effects that transport us from the gem to Howard’s innards highlight the promise of the eponymous stone buried deep within him. It’s not exactly the most subtle metaphor, but it’s an important one that will guide how you watch the Safdie’s unnerving thriller. After all, men have been driven to madness by vague glowing objects throughout history, and Howard is no different. Hence, the self-sabotage.
And Now, The Pitch: Now that we’re truly acquainted, you should know that Howard runs a jewelry shop in New York’s Diamond District, which means it’s the size of a shoebox and has a bustling chaotic energy that never seems to calm. To Howard, the gem is the answer to all of his problems — at least his financial woes — for he plans to use the profits to get his brother-in-law’s goons off his back. But also pay back the other dozen guys he owes. And maybe also get back the watches he pawned without permission. The list is long and anxious and bewildering and that’s the point. The Safdies want you to feel as if there’s no escape, and Howard’s desperation is only amplified by the ensuing stakes.
Almost immediately, we meet Howard’s colleague Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), who brings in high-profile clients interested in the flashy bling he’s peddling. A-listers like NBA superstar Kevin Garnett, who plays himself here in a terrific, lively performance. Overexcited and exasperated, Howard can’t help but show off the gem to Garnett, despite the fact that he has no intention of selling it to him. (He has plans to auction it off to the tune of $1 million later in the week.) But after he passionately explains its origins and why it’s so special and rare (“Black Jew Power,” as Demany succinctly puts it shortly after this exchange), Garnett insists on owning it, believing it will bring him luck in the NBA Finals.
Adding to his dilemmas, Howard agrees to let Garnett hold on to it for just one night, and this is first in what winds up being a series of increasingly poor decisions made over the course of the film’s two hour and 15 minute runtime. From there, Howard must continue to deal with the fallout of his crumbling marriage to his wife (a ferocious Idina Menzel), and figure out if his young mistress (Julia Fox, quite a discovery), who he rents an apartment for, really did cheat on him with The Weeknd. (It should be noted that The Weekend also plays himself, and gets to perform a great song off his era-appropriate mixtape, which is a delicious treat.) So, as you can see, life’s truly a gem for Howard Ratner.
Yeah, Yeah, But What’s This Movie Really Getting At? For Howard, the stress of all his wheeling and dealing appears to be what he feeds on, and he’s always doubling down when he should retreat. Uncut Gems is the story of a degenerate gambler, who keeps making riskier and riskier bets in all facets of his life until it all blows up spectacularly and ends the only way it ever could. It’s a movie about addiction, being your own worst enemy, and not getting out of your own way. It’s grim, to be sure, but it’s packaged as a nail-biting thriller, one that builds to an amazing high-wire-act of a finale that turns a 2012 Celtics playoff game into the most important thing you’ve ever seen in cinema. It’s a remarkable achievement that’s not just one of the best films of the year, but also one of Sandler’s best of all time. Oh, and it features the only hiding of the Afikoman scene I can recall in a movie, so it’s sure to rank highly in the Jewish cinema pantheon.
“This Is How I Win”: Sandler has said that it would be a “funny big thing” if he were to receive an Oscar nomination for the film, adding that he would be “there to win.” “If I don’t get it, I’m going to fucking come back and do one again that is so bad on purpose just to make you all pay. That’s how I get them.” The Sandman may have been kidding during this recent exchange on The Howard Stern Show, but the buzz surrounding his performance is no joke. Since the film’s rousing debut at this year’s Telluride, critics have hailed his performance, and rightly so. It’s terrific and arguably the best work he’s ever done, and certainly the most challenging, ranking up there with his turn in 2002’s Punch Drunk Love.
While Howard Ratner is undeniably Adam Sandler, one of the most famous actors in the world, you’ve definitely never seen him like this before. He’s working with non-actors, some of them literally off the street because this is a Safdies production, and there’s just a sense of authenticity and rawness that you don’t see in mainstream cinema. His character is manic, panicked, and never not talking. You get the impression that all of his problems would fall away if he would just shut the fuck up for three seconds, but he simply can’t do that.
Because of this, Sandler is so much fun to watch, and we’re inherently sympathetic to his character because, well, it’s fucking Adam Sandler. We’re conditioned to be, which is why it’s such brilliant casting on behalf of the Safdies. Associations notwithstanding, Sandler more than rises to the occasion, delivering an electric performance that rides so many different wavelengths. It’s hard to put into words the sheer joy of watching him go ballistic during that final scene in the jewelry store. He’s like a goddamn bull in a China shop.
The Verdict: All that being said, Uncut Gems is simply too “out-there” of a movie to garner any serious attention from Oscar voters. Let’s not forget the Safdies’ previous film, 2017’s Good Time. It’s not only one of the best thrillers of the 2010s, but also features Robert Pattinson’s greatest performance to date, and it was completely snubbed. It’s likely that may happen again, particularly since Uncut Gems is just as dirty, just as grimy, and just as bleak. Here’s hoping the Academy proves us wrong because this is easily the most immersive movie-going experience you’ll have this year — if not ever. The Safdies continue to outmatch themselves, and their brazen filmography remains uncontested.
Where’s It Playing? Uncut Gems opens in limited release this Friday, December 13th and nationwide on Christmas Day.