Uncut Gems is 135 minutes of pure anxiety. It’s a film where every situation is inherently designed to be combustible, and the solutions to each situation are so contrived that they introduce a new set of dangers. Josh and Bennie Safdie have proven to be filmmakers who can overwhelm with their intimate, cinema verite style of filmmaking, and the controlled chaos of Uncut Gems is entirely built around the monumental performance by Adam Sandler at the story’s center. They’re never asking you to relate to him, nor are they asking you to absolve him of his past crimes, but Sandler keeps the momentum of the story going so that it’s impossible to look away.
Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is a New York jeweler and serial gambler who falls in over his head as he attempts to sell a rare gem from Ethiopia to NBA superstar Kevin Garnett. Howard uses this potential deal to place a new series of bets, but he has a lot of collectors who want their reimbursement. As his marriage collapses and his life is in danger, Howard must find a way to pay off his debts and get out on top.
Howard is a despicable character; he’s a terrible father to his children, an unfaithful husband, and his relationship with his girlfriend Julia (Julia Fox) is built on jealously and deceit. Sandler’s comedic films often center around his performances as overgrown man-children, but ironically that’s also the type of character he plays best in his dramatic roles, be it the anxious businessman of Punch Drunk-Love or the black sheep in The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected). Here, his schemes are so ludicrous that they’re impossible to not get onboard with, and Howard’s inability to know when to quit gives him a sense of sadness. Even if these unfortunate situations were enough to get Howard to become more self-aware, there’s never evidence to suggest he’d actually become a better person.
This is precisely why it’s impossible to take your eyes off Sandler. He’s skimming by and has brief moments where it seems like he might be able to quit trying to double his money, and the chaos of the story always managed to impede when Howard is at his most vulnerable. However, Howard himself is often the root of the issue; he’s cut so many different schemes with so many different people that even he can’t keep them all straight.
Like the Safdies’ previous film Good Time, this is a story that keeps moving forward and escalating as it goes along, and the crazy situation Howard finds himself in at the end could only feel earned if it was built on the back of a myriad of schemes and escapades gone awry. It’s not just physical dangers that haunt Howard, as he risks embarrassing himself and his family at school plays and religious ceremonies alike. I’ve seen few films that capture chaos so well; whether its characters talking over each other to the point that it’s impossible to follow one conversation, or the omnipresence of the score and the harsh juxtaposition of an NBA finals with Howard’s ploy to pass off his winnings, Uncut Gems is often an assault on the senses that aims to overwhelm and disorient.
There are points in which Uncut Gems can feel exhausting, and it’s easy to get lost in the minutia of who owes what to who and what the implications of certain action are, but thanks to the surprising nature of the story and the creative problem solving, there’s never a point where the stakes don’t feel real or the dramatic ramifications are lost. This isn’t a journey that’s rewarding in a traditional way, but it’s hard not to appreciate the series of panic attacks that the film invokes. For the Safdies, this is another example of why they’re so uncompromising, and for Sandler, this is the culmination of his career and the greatest performance he’s ever given. Grade: A-