I have said this once and I will say it again. When Adam Sandler puts his mind to it, he can turn out a star-studded performance that most dramatic actors can only dream of. He did it in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2003 Punch-Drunk Love and he’s done it again in the mind-warping Uncut Gems, directed by Josh and Benny Safdie (commonly referred to as the Safdie Brothers). Following Howard Ratner (Sandler), the owner of a luxurious jewellers in the Diamond District in New York and his inability to function as a normal human would. Crippled simultaneously by debt and a gambling addiction to boot, Howard is an awful human being and the Safdies make this no secret. The audience isn’t supposed to like him and yet we do because he is charismatic and pathetic at the same time. When a priceless gem is delivered to him and loaned to basketball star Kevin Garnett, Howard finds himself on the brink of self-destruction as he struggles to get the stone back and at the auction house where he expects to earn millions. Produced by powerhouse studio A24 and distributed on Netflix, Uncut Gems is the film equivalent of an anxiety attack thanks to the unrelenting actions of its protagonist who doesn’t know how to relax. Featuring a variety of celebrity cameos including The Week’nd, Tilda Swinton and Natasha Lyonne, there is also a strong supporting cast led by Lakeith Stanfield as Howard’s assistant, Demany and Julia Fox as Howard’s girlfriend, Julia.
The Safdie Brothers’ vision comes across brilliantly on the technical side. Known for their collaborations with Ronald Bronstein who cowrote the script with both Safdies and also co-edited the film with Benny Safdie. This is a film that needed more than one mind behind the vision and the result is crisp and sleek. The writing is sharp and to the point which is crucial as there are many characters and plenty of scenes in which lots of characters populate the screen. It’s a film that benefits from its direct nature meaning that there are few speeches and little emotion. When the film does delve deep into serious emotion, it feels almost disingenuous because the characters are so self-absorbed. It is the deeply flawed characters that gives the film its grit. What I love most about this film is how fantastical it feels in terms of the tone as Howard lives a luxurious life and yet the violence he is exposed to grounds the film. There is a disconnect between the life Howie should have and the life that he does have. Despite his wealth, he is constantly viewed as an outsider for a multitude of reasons. One such reason is his Jewish faith which is constantly remarked on by his clientele, friends and those he deals with when betting. Another such reason is his inability to maintain sustainable relationships. His paranoia overtakes his love for Julia because he cannot truly fathom that a woman like her could truly love a man like him. His insecurity is a constant throughout the film and is the main reason for his instability.
Adam Sandler is nothing short of brilliant in this film and should have been nominated for all of the awards including the Oscar. His performance is manic and seems lucid but the amount of work Sandler put into this character is clear. Howard is deeply complex. He is fully aware of his issues and yet doesn’t do anything about them. The film is constantly moving up and down as Howard’s rollercoaster way of living reflects the wins and losses he experiences in gambling. This film has become instantly quotable with gifs and memes flooding the internet. Howard’s sleaziness only adds to his dark humour and helplessness. The film is from Howard’s perspective meaning Sandler is onscreen for the vast majority of the film’s 135 minute running time. What makes the character of Howard so hypnotic and engaging to watch is that he acts like an unreliable narrator at times. We hope he pulls through but at the same time his flaws often outweigh his strengths. The climactic scene in which Howard is watching the final basketball game that he has bet all of his earnings on is deeply intense and yet he seems relatively calm. His certainty that he will win when his first bet was reliant on a coin toss is unbelievable. If there was an award for the most frustrating character in film history, Howard would definitely be up there but that is exactly how he is meant to be. He is one of the most unlikeable likeable characters I have ever come across and I think it’s credit to Sandler’s skill that he manages to pull that off.
The score provided by Oneohtrix Point Never is a showstopper. The tone that the score gives is in a similar vein to Jóhann Jóhannsson’s brilliant score for the 2018 film, Mandy. Much like Jóhannsson’s score, Oneohtrix Point Never’s score has also proven divisive but I think that Uncut Gems is a film that doesn’t hold back in its performance, script and subject matter. The music is futuristically nostalgic, merging various genres and sounds to create a soundtrack that is unique. Much like the protagonist, the score doesn’t seem to settle and keeps crashing through, heightening the tension and making for an anxiety-ridden audience experience. The score category in awards season was very strong this year but I still think it was a shame that the Uncut Gems soundtrack wasn’t at least recognised. The fact that it clashes with what you see on the screen adds to the jarring effect that the film brought.
Uncut Gems lives up to the hype and delivers brilliance in spades. It’s a shame that it wasn’t recognised this awards season but I believe that Sandler’s performance specifically will not go unnoticed. If anything, Uncut Gems has opened the door for Sandler to continue tackling challenging roles and it makes me excited to see what the Safdie Brothers have planned next. It’s a film that isn’t afraid to make light of the dark topics it explores such as addiction and violence. It’s reluctance to fit into a specific box of film makes it a stand out in the same way that Parasite is and I think it was stronger than a lot of contenders this awards season.
What did you think of Uncut Gems? Let me know in the comments below!