Uncut Gems (2019)
Written by Ronald Bronstein, Josh Safdie, & Bennie Safdie
Directed by Josh & Bennie Safdie
Josh & Bennie Safdie first came to my attention with Good Time, which presented its seemingly simple story with such stylish confidence that it left me stunned. They have a much deeper film career than I realized, and I have also seen Heaven Knows What, which does a similar job of telling a naturalistic story with an evident personal aesthetic. I plan on delving deeper into their filmography in 2020, but for now, I want to look at their latest release, Uncut Gems.
There’s nothing from a plot perspective that makes Uncut Gems unique from any other slick crime film. It’s about a man who is so obsessed with grabbing the golden ring that he keeps digging himself deeper into what will eventually become his grave. What makes Uncut Gems sparkle so beautifully are the stylistic touches the Safdies bring to the picture. Howard Ratner was a jeweler in NYC’s Diamond District in 2012. He’s recently purchased an uncut black opal from an Ethiopian Jewish black market seller, believing that this rare item, once sold at auction, will grant him a payday that will solve all his problems. Howard is in deep debt with some nasty people, and they are coming to his business and making threats. Howard is also in the beginning stages of a divorce while carrying on an affair with Julia, an employee at his store.
Adam Sandler reminds us once again that he is a strong actor when given the right role. He must be stinking rich at this point, so it’s strange why he would still do such horrible comedies. Maybe he enjoys making them and spending time with friends, but he seems so miserable when you watch them. Here, Sandler is reveling in this character, developing subtle body language and affecting a specific manner of speaking. He’s actually doing that thing good actors do, building a character. You’ll be reminded of projects like Punch-Drunk Love and Funny People, where Sandler plays someone complex, not exactly a hero, and closer to an anti-hero. You will root for Howard, but upon reflection, find yourself wondering why he doesn’t stop.
This is a common theme in the Safdie characters, an obsession that proves to be the root of their protagonists’ troubles. Harley in Heaven Only Knows is pulled down by the dual passions of heroin and Ilya, while Good Time’s Connie cannot escape the pull of his brother and allows himself to create compounding horrors in his life. I would say that Howard’s story is a bit more palatable for broad audiences than the previous two films, but it still delivers a wallop in its final act. The Safdies have no compunctions about bringing their audience to the highest elation and then slamming them to the ground emotionally in a single moment.
The Safdies are in tune with the idea that consumption is a dead-end addiction. Money and inequality are at the forefront of their work. Howard is a man who thinks that he can be happy if he just wins that next bet or sells an item at auction. Because his life has no meaning, he is entirely emotionally disconnected from his wife and children, he seeks thrills from playing with dangerous men and making foolish bets. He doesn’t love his mistress; he lusts after her. His texts are always focused on having her, using her body, jealousy over other men getting to have her. She appears to love him, but it’s never clear why possibly because he is so broken. We don’t learn much about Julia, but I would suspect that her backstory includes a father who was like how Howard is with his own children.
Uncut Gems is not as relentless as Good Time, but it is still going to be an intense experience that has you grabbing the armrests of your seat. Sandler is brilliant and gives us a fully three-dimensional character that the audience must come to terms with. The Safdies aren’t afraid to play with style and the camera, giving us a film that feels fried on the edges, a movie that is grotesque and beautiful simultaneously, reveling in the glamour of the obscene.