Director: Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie | Distributed by: A24 and Netflix | Rating: R
Let’s start with a bit of a study.
Adam Sandler, with his ridiculously scattershot career path and constant forays into the world of lowbrow comedy, could easily be viewed as a terrible choice to lead a crime thriller such as his latest effort Uncut Gems, whereas directors/writers Josh and Benny Safdie have enjoyed a string of well-received indie films with their most recent being the acclaimed Robert Pattinson vehicle Good Time. It’s an odd pairing, but with the Safdies at the helm of Uncut Gems and the knowledge that Sandler does indeed have the ability to creatively branch out best seen in such past works as Punch-Drunk Love, Funny People and The Meyerowitz Stories does indeed throw some fuel onto the fire that maybe, just maybe, putting Sandler with the Safdies has the potential to produce something special.
On the surface, there’s not much to say about the premise that hasn’t been told before in countless similar films-Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a compulsive gambler who must find a way to settle his various debts before disaster inevitably strikes in the form of collectors, loan sharks, less-than-scrupulous business associates and the affairs he tries to manage on the side. We’ve seen this before in a variety of different genres, from Rounders to The Gambler to most of 1995’s criminally underrated Money Train, always to varying degrees of success. There exists no question that, of this motion picture subset, Uncut Gems is the best, a genre-defining entry and one of the best films of the year.
From the moment the production logos fade the movie erupts at a frenetic pace, taking us from an overseas mine where a rare & beautiful rock has been uncovered. This discovery will figure heavily into just one of Uncut Gems many interwoven plotlines, all of which complement each other beautifully without falling into the trap of confusion many similarly stuffed films tend to share.
We then cut to New York City, immediately thrust into the lift of Sandler’s Ratner, a man just trying to keep things together even in the face of total collapse. A camera that feels like it never cuts away follows him to his job as an exclusive jewelry store owner, one who privately gambles with as much of his inventory as he legitimately sells. From there, we learn quickly about all the other fires Ratner has been almost literally running trying to extinguish, all backed by dialogue that not only bleeds realism but also overlaps time & again-that said, it never once feels like a strain to understand what’s happening. Truly, this is how you pace a film such as this, and it’s an enticing challenge to keep up.
Uncut Gems doesn’t just serve as a slam dunk for the Safdies, who somehow manage to make scenes set during the day seem dark & gritty, propelled by a unique electronic score courtesy of returning collaborator Daniel Lopatin and always overflowing with claustrophobic tension that will truly make audiences frequently uncomfortable as we watch Ratner attempt to juggle his many problems to varying degrees of success and failure. This is also Adam Sandler’s best work by a landslide-it’s as far removed from every Happy Madison production that’s comprised the bulk of his career as possible, with seemingly every other word a curse but never for the sake of saying a bad word. It’s clear that, at any moment, Ratner’s entire world could fall apart, and in creating such a character Sandler disappears – there’s no evidence of the immaturity present throughout his decades-long career. Here, we see a man on the edge, hiding behind an uncomfortable, cocksure smile Ratner probably thinks helps to break the ice with those around him but barely masks his anguish.
That’s not to say that the rest of the cast doesn’t perform just as admirably. Idina Menzel’s somewhat limited screentime as Ratner’s wife showcases her raw, outstanding capabilities as an actress and the perfect antithesis for Ratner, with whom she’s dead set on divorcing as soon as possible but needs to play nice for the sake of their children. Scenes between the two couldn’t overflow with any more stress than what we’re presented with, which is something that could easily be uttered about roughly every interaction Sandler shares with the rest of the cast.
It’s always wonderful to see Eric Bogosian, still a personal favorite following his classic performance in Talk Radio, who shows up from time to time as yet another individual to who Ratner owes a not-inconsiderable amount, while former NBA phenom Kevin Garnett nails a similar role as, unsurprisingly, a Celtics standout obsessed with Ratner’s rock who finds himself drawn into the adrenaline-fueled nightmare that is Ratner’s behind-the-back dealings. Even Judd Hirsch is along for the ride as a relation of Ratner which allows the cinema icon a chance to stretch his acting muscles past whatever he brought to the table in Independence Day: Resurgence with a role that sees his character sucked into Ratner’s various dilemmas-in fact, it’s this that contributes to one of Uncut Gems‘ true nailbiters of a scene at an auction where the infamous rock is up for bid. There’s nothing more that needs to be said about these few minutes of film-it’s as well-crafted as storytelling gets.
It’s a unique situation-while I would love to see more from every character who supports Sandler’s bulldozer of a performance, somehow the Safdies have crafted a story where everyone who occupies every corner of scenery is used as appropriately and effectively as possible. Make no mistake-people you may slightly overlook at first might just come back later in a larger capacity, while the small detours such as the repeated references to Ratner’s religion and a sequence at a Passover dinner, moments that could be viewed as unnecessarily random in another film, fit into Uncut Gems better than expected. There’s no shortage of heartbreak, either, shown best when Ratner breaks down in his office at the top of the film’s third act or when he interacts with his children, all of who either despise the man or are on their way to doing so. It’s best to take everything in, a perfect example of how the sum is greater than the individual parts and stepping back to indulge in the entirety of a piece of art such as this is unquestionably the best bet.
The ability of an anxiety-ridden film such as Uncut Gems to fall into the category of rewatchable is a feat in and of itself, but the task succeeds admirably, thanks to everyone involved both in front of and behind the well-utilized camera. This isn’t just a career-high for Sandler or the Safdies, Idina Menzel or Kevin Garnett, the person in charge of cinematography or the man behind the mixing console-this is a film to behold, one that sits with you long after and should easily find its way onto any number of Year End Best lists. It’s an experience as much as it can be called a film, and it remains one of the finest I’ve had in a very long time.
Uncut Gems opens wide on Christmas Day.
Led by standout Adam Sandler, Uncut Gems succeeds in every area, from a compelling story and outstanding supporting cast all driven by the stellar direction of Josh and Benny Safdie.