Uncut Gems is the most uncomfortable, stress-inducing film I've maybe ever seen, and it's really, really good.
I had no preconceived notions about this film going in, except it's "supposed to be good" and stars Adam Sandler. It was an odd choice for my dad to want to see it, given he generally hates Sandler's movies. Luckily for him, the former SNL cast member's portrayal of Howard "Howie" Ratner is unlike anything audiences have ever seen him do before. It's not surprising that there is already Oscar buzz surrounding his performance.
*POTENTIAL SPOILERS BELOW*
Uncut Gems, directed by Josh and Benny Safdie, is an American crime thriller following a frantic gambling addict and diamond dealer in New York City's Diamond District. I don't feel great writing this sentence, but it's literally about a super greedy Jew (what a choice for a Christmas day release). Ratner is just the worst. We learn he's in the process of separating from his wife and mother of his three children, presumably in favor of his young mistress (Julia Fox), who by day works at his jewel shop and by night sells coke and gives The Weeknd a hand job. (Yeah, that actually happens!) Ratner owes money to basically everyone in the Diamond District, having made a series of bad bets and terrible decisions. You'll find yourself rooting for the character at times and then cringing and shouting internally when you see him undermining himself and digging himself deeper.
Like The Weeknd, who plays himself, Kevin Garnett (the NBA legend) has a major role in the film, portraying himself as he was in 2012 when the movie takes place: a star power forward on the Boston Celtics. His performance is unsettling in the best way. I wouldn't say he displays a great range of emotions... He more or less fluctuates between impatience and anger. However, he has this very strange fascination with an uncut opal Ratner possesses. When he looks into the stone, he becomes fixated, as various images flash across the screen, some of which are disturbing. This introduces an eerie and quasi-mystical element to the opal; Garnett goes almost full Gollum a la Lord of The Rings, claiming repeatedly that he needs it. I'm actually shocked that he not only took this role, but totally nailed it.
Garnett is introduced to Ratner through Demany (LaKeith Stanfield), a cool black guy with tons of celebrity connections. Did I need to include "black guy" in the description? Yes, because although it's a given if you're familiar with LaKeith Stanfield, it's oddly integral to understanding his relationships in the film. Also, there are a ton of N-bombs dropped throughout the movie, so trigger warning if that's something that makes you uncomfortable (I'm just happy they never said "bling"). We can see that Ratner's business has thrived by appealing to high-spending black celebrities, and Demany is his connection to that world. Demany brings clients in and takes a cut if Ratner closes a sale. In many ways, Demany is a foil to Ratner. Where Ratner is constantly bugging out (or as his girlfriend calls it, "being extra"), Demany is mostly cool and collected. Demany's main priority in the film is protecting his relationships, whereas Ratner is disliked by everyone and seems willing to burn down any relationships in his way. While every character's motives in this movie are suspect, you will look back on the movie wishing Ratner would take Demany's advice.
There is a gangster film quality to Uncut Gems that occasionally gave me The Irishman flashbacks. Both films feature crime, suspense, violence, and focus on acute details in the interactions between characters and exploring their motivations by showing rather than telling. Moreover, both are very long and have seasoned actors giving incredible, career-defining performances. However, Uncut Gems is a thriller rather than a drama, and the tension never lets up. There is little to no comic relief, and there are very few calm or quiet scenes. There is no narration from the protagonist that would assure us that he will survive the events we're watching. And while Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) is a badass hitman in The Irishman, completely capable of protecting himself, Sandler's Howie Ratner is out of shape and sloppy in everything he does.
My stepmother actually had to leave while there was still an hour of the movie left. "Everybody was just yelling and cursing the entire time," she remarked afterwards. "If you write a review, you should tell people it's the worst movie ever." I couldn't disagree more.
True, it is not a feel-good film. You will actively feel unsettled, and that feeling will linger beyond the end credits and your silent car ride home. My sister and I were legitimately rattled. But that is to the credit of how well the film is made and how convincing the performances are. It's an intentionally feel-bad movie, where we as the audience are filled with all the anxiety and overwhelmed paranoia that the protagonist is. Think There Will Be Blood, with a main character way worse at capitalism, or Enter The Void without all the trippy drug and afterlife stuff.
For me, the only detractor was some of the sound design. The soundtrack itself is awesome, albeit a little confusing. The film takes place in 2012, but the score has an 80's synth feel. The featured music is mostly hip hop, primarily songs that I not only love but which brought me right back to 2012. The sound design, however, pulled me out of the movie, particularly in the first act. With all the long-take shots and moving cameras, it seemed the mics were moving around just as much. I found it difficult at moments to feel how close characters were, or who they were talking to. There's a fair chance I might have missed several important lines when multiple people were speaking at once. That said, this also may have been deliberate. Howard Ratner suffers from terrible communication skills. It's clear that he doesn't listen to others, constantly gets distracted, and is rarely present, emotionally or mentally. That disconnect from others could be intentionally highlighted by sound decisions I otherwise attributed to inconsistent audio quality. Or maybe the sound just sucked in some parts.
Regardless, the film is remarkable, disturbing, unpleasant, tragic, beautiful, and triumphant. I wish other movies outside the crime thriller genre would strive for equal depth and impact, whereby the audience knows and feels the stakes. If Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker had a fraction of the heart this movie has, I would have accepted all the messy plot and cheap mystery box BS. Definitely see this film.
Uncut Gems | Official Trailer HD | A24 www.youtube.com
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