Image Credit: NETFLIX UK/US
The Safdie Brothers deal in anxiety. Their 2017 feature Good Time played out like a bad acid trip, a night bruised by redbluepurple neon that saw Robert Pattinson’s attempts to jailbreak his brother spiral into depravity, hounded by police sirens and the bloodied synths from Oneohtrix Point Never’s score. In Uncut Gems, Adam Sandler dons the yellow-tinted grin of Howard Ratner, a New York jeweller trying to cash in on his latest scheme as his debtors close in on him, caught in a melee of thugs, hustlers and basketball stars as he gambles his survival on the outcomes of the NBA matches that he obsessively bets on.
Trapped by the Safdie’s telephoto lenses that surveil his movements on the streets of New York’s diamond district, Howard is without sanctuary as his personal and professional lives collide. Even in his jewellery store, surrounded by glass both bulletproof and brittle, sooner or later, like the fake watches he deals on the side, something is going to shatter. At the centre of the film’s events is an Ethiopian black opal, the movie title emerging in its psychedelic recesses after the camera zooms through it into an incandescent universe that eventually reveals itself as footage of Howard’s colonoscopy. From this immersion comes another, where the spell of tense momentum that exhilarates the entire film’s duration picks up before the opening credits have even finished appearing across the screen, lifted by the swish of drums and whining synths in a score that is both agitated and ethereal. The dogged mayhem then ensues with all the fluorescence of diamonds beneath ultraviolet light, especially in the scene containing a luminous brawl between Howard and RnB artist The Weeknd. Yeah.
Gems sees the Safdies’ matching their guerrilla style of film-making’s obsession with grittiness razor-cut from reality, to this their highest-profile flick. Their cast intersperses first-time actors amidst professionals while starring the Weeknd and the NBA’s Kevin Garnett as themselves, setting the events over a tumultuous few days in
2012. This is the same year that That’s My Boy came out, another entry in the endless discography of Adam Sandler movies in which he plays a man-child called Steve or Lenny or something. But in the alternate universe of Uncut Gems, the punchable face that is Howard Ratner’s arrives through a heavyweight Sandler performance that bloodies the nose of his juvenile film persona, inhabiting a character whose childlike glee and selfishness is undercut by flights of self-destruction that make him a magnetic onscreen presence. Whether locked in the boot of a car, cutting precious stones out of a fish or above all watching basketball, Howard is constantly speaking, willing his version of reality into existence through a storm of expletives and dirty talk. In a business of selling bling to the rich and famous, his spotlight follows him from showrooms and VIP sections into back offices, hotel kitchens and a violent criminal underworld, all in pursuit of his own moment of glory. Because for all the chaos and obscene stakes, Howard ultimately leaves his fate up to the basketball matches over which he has no control, forcing those around
him to witness his ruin or victory with the lunatic zeal of a die-hard sports fan.
This is the genius of Uncut Gems, the intoxicating powerlessness that we the audience share with Howard as we watch him at his most vulnerable as he himself is gripped to a screen, resulting in a final twenty minutes that combine total euphoria with utter dread. In Howard Ratner, Adam Sandler and the Safdies have created an iconic figure in cinema. In Howard we trust.
Uncut Gems is now streaming on Netflix