Similar to how I felt about Yorgos Lanthimos before The Favourite, directors Josh and Benny Safdie have always been up-and-down for me — until now. Uncut Gems is the best of what they do. It’s a propulsive, aggressive, passionately-made, out-there masterpiece about a side of New York not usually explored in cinema. Produced by Martin Scorsese, it takes some of the best impulses of his emulators and injects them into a magical mystery tour of a falling house of cards. It’s really falling in slow-motion, but the film moves so rapidly that there’s almost no sense of those grander stakes until it’s too late.
Adam Sandler gives what is undoubtedly the best performance of his career as Howard, a diamond-district jeweler with a serious gambling addiction. Sandler is someone who clearly knows the difference between a good movie and a bad one, because the ratio throughout his career has been mostly 5 to 1 — five awful comedies for every one genuine comedy or solid drama. The comedies clearly keep the bucks rolling in, but movies like this and The Meyerowitz Stories build up his street cred among cinephiles who are paying attention.
Howard makes a bet based on a convoluted scheme he concocts after beguiling Kevin Garnett (the real Kevin Garnett) with a rare African opal he believes will bring him good luck on the basketball court. Nobody really seems to find Howard credible, but through sheer force of will and quick thinking, Howard basically manages to bluff his niche market and save his own ass every time. As the forces arrayed against him come into starker relief, he continues to take even more wild risks, pushing the audience to hair-tearing-out levels of tension and frustration. But that’s just who this character is.
What makes Uncut Gems more than just an engaging character study to me is its subtextual material. There is a ladder of power laid out by the film’s overall arc. We start with the African miners who found the stone, then we see the man who brings the stone to Howard. We see Howard struggling to stay afloat even in a world where his merchandise has the potential to secure serious cash. We see Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), Howard’s right-hand man who gets by simply on his connections to celebrities. And we finally see the thugs sent to rough Howard up as the last piece of a power puzzle — a hyperactive group of men play-acting importance and influence.
It speaks to what the promise of “more” does to people. Howard is caught up in a search for more money and power, as is Demany, as are those lower on this food chain, and that search is often at the expense of their own well-being and survival. It’s no spoiler to say that we see physical consequences of this search — of this economic system — in the mines within the first few minutes of the film.
Apart from those deeper threads, Uncut Gems is still a thrilling shot of adrenaline. It doesn’t hold your hand, it doesn’t make excuses for its scummy characters, it just wants to be about what it’s about. I love this film because it’s not trying to be all things to all people. If it sounds uniquely weird, stressful, or uninteresting to you, it probably will be. But man oh man, I can’t deny the exhilarating experience I had watching it.
‘Uncut Gems’ is now playing everywhere in the US
2hr, 15min; Rated R for pervasive strong language, violence, some sexual content and brief drug use