Being a movie fan in what is generally considered a fly-over state can be a tad frustrating at times, and especially at the end of the year. Because, right at the tail end of any given year a bunch of high-quality films, potential awards contenders usually, are dumped out in order to qualify for said awards, and more often than not they get dropped on the coasts, and then slowly trickle into the rest of the country. Sometimes, quite out of step with the more important cities. I mean, we here in Denver aren’t even going to get to see 1917 for a few more weeks. But, I did get to pop in and check out a couple of my remaining anticipated films of the year, including a movie that I had been eagerly awaiting, with some slight apprehension. And that film is what we’re discussing today, the latest film from the mad geniuses, the Safdie Brothers, Uncut Gems. A few years ago I talked about their breakthrough hit, Good Time, a movie that hit like a ton of bricks, and that grew on me substantially over the ensuing years, becoming one of those movies that I just couldn’t quite shake out of my head. So, when I learned that they would be following that film up with another scuzzy crime-thriller, this time from an apparently stunning performance from Adam Sandler, I was of course interested. And, that interest really only grew when I started to hear reaction from the film, hailing it as one of the finest films of the year, and a genuinely unnerving experience. Terms like “panic attack” were thrown around quite a bit, promising a movie that would set you on edge, and make you uncomfortable throughout. Which is somehow equal parts exciting and terrifying to hear. So, not exactly expecting a good time, I went to check out Uncut Gems, and it certainly delivers on the madness promised.
The film follow a man named Howard Ratner, a perpetual loser who runs a jewelry store in New York’s Diamond District. Howard is constantly looking for a leg up in the world, a scheme that will get him set for life and placed into a state of happiness that seems to constantly elude him. He has a crumbling marriage, a slightly unhappy mistress, he’s drowning in gambling debt to his brother-in-law Arno, and he’s always one step ahead of destruction. But, he thinks he’s going to be able to turn all of that around, because after a shady business deal with some Ethiopian Jewish miners, Howard gets his hands on a rare black opal. Howard plans on selling the opal at auction, hoping to get upwards of a million dollars for it, which would help him finally pay off his debts to Arno, and avoid any of the deadly threats that have been thrown his way. Unfortunately, Howard isn’t able to get out of his own way, so when an associate of his named Demany arrives in his shop with several high-rolling people, including professional basketball star Kevin Garnett, Howard starts showing the opal off. And, Garnett has an immediate reaction to the stone, pressuring Howard to let him borrow it for the night in exchange for Howard holding onto his championship ring. Garnett then goes to play the game of his life, ensuring his team gets into the Championship game.
Unfortunately, this makes Garnett deadset on owning the gem, even going so far as to trying to steal it from Howard. He races around the city, even going to confront Garnett in Philadelphia, but there doesn’t seem any way for him to get his hands back on the opal. Which, earns him a lot of stress and grief from Arno and his men, who are insistent that he pay up his debts. Garnett finally brings the opal back, and attempts to buy it from Howard outright, but Howard swears that it’s worth more than Garnett is offering, and attempts to get him to come to the upcoming auction. But, when the auction finally arrives Howard is furious to learn that the opal has been appraised for far littler than he had expected. So, he attempts to get his father-in-law to help drive up the price, which of course backfires, and gets them to buy their own opal back. But, Howard’s still able to make a side-deal with Garnett, selling the opal for far less than he has originally intended. But, Garnett feels incredibly confident with the opal, so Howard decides to press his luck and use the money from the sale, which could get him out of the deep end with Arno, and sends his mistress Julia to make a massive and specific bet on Garnett’s game. Arno and his men attempt to stop her, but Howard manages to take them prisoner for the entirety of the game, where they get to witness him pull it off. Howard makes over a million dollars on the bet, and then frees Arno and his men. Unfortunately, one of Arno’s goons has grown quite sick of Howard, so when he’s freed he shoots both Howard and Arno in the head, robbing the jewelry store, and leaving Howard dead after his greatest triumph.
Uncut Gems certainly lives up to its reputation as a panic attack given life. It’s an unrelenting film, grabbing you from the beginning and immediately throwing you into the world of a man whose life is falling apart. You follow Howard on his unending trip down into the depths of chaos and insanity, watching as he makes bad decision after bad decision. And, it’s utterly captivating. It’s a movie that doesn’t really allow you to catch your breath, taking you from one insane scene to another, all the while building up an understanding of this incredibly flawed human being. And, Adam Sandler knocks it all out of the goddamn park. I’ve always been a fan of Sandler when he’s actually trying and not just cashing in a paycheck and a free vacation with his buddies, but he’s in rare form here, utterly giving himself over to this dirtbag character as we watch his inevitable doom. I’m still a little unsure of how I would stand it up against Good Time, while really enjoying both of them. Because, shockingly, Good Time ended up being the story of a more likable character compared with Uncut Gems. Robert Pattinson is an equally depraved character, but he’s at least doing all of the insane things he does in that film out of love for his brother. Howard Ratner is just a complete asshole, destroying the lives of everyone around him, all out of some self-destructive need for more.
Howard seems like he has a decent life. He’s certainly some people’s idea of success, at the very least. And yet, as the film goes on, it becomes apparent that none of it is enough for Howard. And, what more, is seems like nothing will ever be enough. Because the only time Howard actually seems happy, the only time he’s actually feeling alive, is when he’s trying to get out from under something. He’s a man completely controlled by a desire to have more than what he currently has. It goes beyond simple greed, and becoming an all-consuming avarice. We see Howard reach a point where he could make all the pressure go away several times in the film. Hell, the entire climax comes about because instead of just cutting his losses and paying off his debts he decides to concoct an insane gambling scheme that ends up causing him his life. Yeah, it ends up working, and for a brief moment we see Howard showered with pure bliss, finally winning, only to be immediately killed. But, it’s kind of a moot point, because over the time we spend with Howard it’s clear that even if he hadn’t caught a bullet he would still have found some way to immediately put himself back in harm’s way. Because he doesn’t want peace, he doesn’t want success. He simple wants. And he would never stop wanting.
Uncut Gems was written by Ronald Bronstein, Josh Safdie, and Benny Safdie, directed by Josh and Benny Safdie, and released by A24, 2019.
Categories: Reel Talk