Uncut Gems, a modern-day Roman tragedy situated in fluorescent back rooms, is the latest film from the Safdie Brothers. The Safdies gained profuse acclaim after shocking audiences with the 2017 crime drama Good Time, starring Robert Pattinson. The film was an obtrusive reminder to the world that these guys are not playing around; their latest film, Uncut Gems, serves as a similar announcement. This film is cocaine, caviar, k’vatsh, and Grand Theft Auto printed on celluloid. An adrenaline shot to the senses, it proves that the Safdie brothers have done it again.
What initially drew me into this film was its uniqueness on a sonic level. The main theme, which is a series of hard hitting, resonating synths overlapped with fluorescent ambience, is immediately engrained into one’s memory. Daniel Lopatin takes a gritty, in-your-face film and broadens its effect on the senses by creating soundscapes that are transcendent. It’s almost as though the soundtrack was created by slot machines and dreams, and you can hear the souls lost in the pursuit of money as if they are trapped in the notes that belt and vibrate across the score.
In fact, Uncut Gems is a film that is seemingly all about the pursuit of money. The value it holds in our society carries a type of mysticism behind it. Money has been idolized and mythologized since its creation, and it makes fools out of many who chase it. The lead character around which the story revolves goes by the name Howard Ratner, played by none other than Adam Sandler. Howard is a jeweller working the diamond district in New York City circa 2012. He is a family man who could never be a family man. Addicted to the rush of buying, selling, and gambling, he is, from the opening scene, constantly on a hamster wheel of currency.
Early in the film, Howard has a meeting with Kevin Garnett and decides to lend a precious Ethiopian opal to the NBA star. What follows from this initial meeting is a schizoid mind-f*** of a film. Howard then crosses paths with The Weeknd, appearing as himself, and the narrative never takes one pause in its breakneck pace. It feels so hyper-real it’s unreal, with the dialogue seemingly free-styled; you can feel the actors’ comfort with the world they’re inhabiting, and it makes for some of the most realistic and exciting dialogue in a crime picture in years.
The camera, which follows Howard as he leads a wild goose chase around New York, is manned by Darius Khondji. The film is shot through a documentary-style lens, and an invasion of personal space is the modus operandi, unafraid and unforgiving. The colour palettes from artists Khondji and the Safdies simply get poured onto the city, taking the fluorescent over-lighting of New York’s jewelry district and transporting it to run through back rooms and back entrances. Every scene is brilliantly lit and the Safdies utilize an almost grainy filter that only further accentuates the weathered quitters-are-losers look on Sandler’s face throughout the picture. Heavy purples and pinks wash over Howard’s face. The shots are almost idolizing, which thematically is parallel with the narrative.
The film is an expose of consumerism and how it turns into a drug of sorts for people. It shows the disease of constantly striving for the proverbial next level, the inevitable status-oriented conversation over coffee and dinner tables by anxious heads of families as they swiftly smoke cigarettes. In the end, the Safdie brothers hit the audience with the harsh reality that it’s all essentially meaningless. There is a moment when the addiction is so strong for Howard that even after heavy harassment and threats from creditors, he still, when given enough money to pay them off, puts the money on a basketball game. The depravity is colossal, and the Safdie brothers find decadence in it — and I must say, the audience at my screening was clearly enjoying the decadence all the same.
Not to take away from the supporting cast, who were unbelievably convincing and magnificent in their roles, but the film would never have the stride it does without Adam Sandler. No one else could have hit the role with such accuracy. His perfectly timed, blank stare of confusion in moments of chaos is perfectly in tune with the film’s style, setting, and story. You hate to love him, but you can’t help doing so. He’s just addicted to the rush of it all: the rush of nothing being for certain and the fluctuating price of diamonds. The experience of watching it feels akin to this rush, which is a testament to the talent of the brothers. You don’t quite know exactly what the hell is going on and you don’t know what the hell is going to happen next. Constant heightened emotion and firecracker dialogue (obviously written by natives of New York City) make this entire film feel like the second half of Goodfellas.
This film had a profound experience on me. Being a young cinephile who specializes in pre-1999 cinema, and as an aspiring director myself, it is at times tiresome to see films getting pumped out of Hollywood that hold no grit, no style — just plain toast. To have a pair like the Safdie brothers making pictures in their absolute signature style has provided me with a well needed boost in creativity and inspiration.
Uncut Gems is a modern-day classic crime picture nestling itself up there among the greats, with ingenious sound design by Daniel Lopatin, brilliance in all aspects of cinematography thanks to Darius Khondji, and absolute masterful direction by Joshua and Benjamin Safdie. Uncut Gems is a gem of a crime picture.