Directed by Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie; Written by Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie, Ronald Bronstein
I like the rush of it
Howard “Howie” Ratner, New York City diamond dealer, has a nagging worry. Earlier in the week, he underwent a colonoscopy and the doctor found a suspicious growth. The mind starts assuming the worst, of course. However, an hour into Uncut Gems, the radioactive new film by the Safdie brothers, he receives a call from his doctor informing him he’s all clear – no colon cancer. Sweet relief! Now to focus on his other mental plights: debts all over town, sinister types who promise all kinds of bodily harm should he fail to repay them, a crashing marriage with an exasperated wife, slow erosion of his kids’ esteem for him, and last, but certainly not least, a growing spat with a 6’11” NBA power forward who is obsessed with an opal in Howard’s possession.
It makes for a hellish existence. Like a day of wall-to-wall meetings where those you encounter either threaten you, berate you, or icily despise you, and on the agenda throughout is the possibility of your discontinued existence. Shining bright in all this is Adam Sandler, doing some of the best work of his career as the impossibly buoyant Howard whose ability to carry on in face of the impossible, and belief in his own ability to sort things out is a natural wonder. He’s a semi-capable sleaze, and one shouldn’t be fooled by the glitz of his product – he’s a hustler with a pearly smile that belies his hapless loserdom, a floundering middleweight at best.
To watch Uncut Gems is like being trapped in a whirlwind of outpouring aggression. The script’s dialogue is delivered as overlapping shouting matches, and no scene goes off without a confrontation in the style of drive-by diplomacy: pull up, punch out your points, peel out. There to pour gasoline on the inferno is rapid-fire editing, which hurls characters at you in angry face-closeups, and all of this is set to a ticking clock. It’s non-stop, breathless action, and to watch Howard paint himself into corners, talk his way out by raising the stakes, and piece together his plans on the fly is nothing short of stress-ulcer inducing.
Daniel Lopatin of Oneohtrix Point Never returns to do the score, and its mix of 80s synthesizers, choral music, and thumping percussion is another layer to the avalanche of impressions Uncut Gems overpowers you with.
Between Uncut Gems and Good Time, the Safdie brothers prove themselves the premier chroniclers of two-bit players’ misfortunes, and in a world where crooks are cynical and methodological, the hapless protagonists of the Safdies’ films feel like a novelty, their constant wrong-footing and good-intentioned freewheeling a rarity.
Mesmerizing when it isn’t terrifying, Uncut Gems is undiluted cinematic adrenaline. I can’t think of a film where the most laid-back sequence is a camera feed of a man’s colonoscopy, and the Safdie’s have done the impossible in telling a story that can sustain a full-tilt pace for its entire run-time. It’s electric filmmaking that elevates dire, down-low circumstances to a new, higher level of thrill.