By Stephanie Kelly, First Year, Liberal Arts
Uncut Gems (2019) surprises you from it’s very first shot. It begins a world away from the claustrophobia of metropolitan New York, where the film is mostly set, instead presenting us with the vast Ethiopian desert.
There are miners here under strict supervision from their employers, until one worker becomes gruesomely injured and distracts almost everyone away from their work. The commotion provides an opportunity for two workers: a chance to steal an Ethiopian opal embedded into the rock. You can see the universe inside these opals, Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) says later. You see, he’s in the business of gems. And this one will change his universe forever.
The Diamond District. New York, 2012. Howard Ratner runs a crowded, stifling jewellery shop which sells to the likes of rappers and elite athletes. Big toothed and sleazy, he cheats on his wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) with his beautiful and languid assistant Julia (Julia Fox).
His children are indifferent towards him. His employees are frustrated by him. He’s also a gambling addict, who secretly sells his costumers' own jewellery in order to free up enough cash to gamble away again.
To top it all off, his brother-in-law is a loan shark, and Howard owes him $100,000. His life is as overwhelmingly complicated as his oppressive shop. However, with the arrival of the gigantic opal, supposedly worth $1,000,000, comes Howard’s ticket out of debt. He has organised for it to be sent to an auction house the next morning. But when Kevin Garret, the superstar NBA player, insists on borrowing it for luck in his game that evening, matters become more complicated.
Tangled in his debts, his affair, his familial issues, his problematic employees, and on a hunt to retrieve the back his ‘million-dollar’ rock, the Safdie brothers paint a masterfully suspenseful portrait of a man burdened by his own incompetence.
They build on themes first shown in the - excuse the pun - hidden gem of a film Good Time (2017), on Netflix for those of you who haven’t seen it. Like Connie Nikas, Howard Ratner is on the run, and you will be glued to your seat in anticipation of the explosive and unexpected ending. Half my thumb was chewed off due to sheer anxiety while I watched this film.
You can’t help but empathise with Howard, despite the fact he is disgusting, idiotic and reckless
The Safdie brothers wanted Adam Sandler to play Howard in Uncut Gems ever since the idea came to them in 2009, but they had to cast Jonah Hill when Sandler regretfully declined. Thankfully, Sandler saw better of himself in 2016, and accepted the role.
In Uncut Gems, he gives a career defining performance that was criminally robbed in the race for the ‘Lead Male’ Oscar nominations. Sandler said himself that if Uncut Gems wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award, his next project would be the worst possible film he could find.
You can’t help but empathise with Howard, despite the fact he is disgusting, idiotic and reckless. The effect he has is like that of a friend’s puppy who tears apart your house. You know you shouldn’t hate it because it doesn’t know any better, but it still left poo on your carpet.
The supporting characters are equally as good: Idina Menzel is razor sharp as his disenchanted wife, and Julia Fox is just divine as Howard’s somewhat clueless girlfriend. These performances would of course mean little if not for Darious Khondji’s stunning cinematography and Daniel Lopatin’s intense, space-aged score.
Uncut Gems verges on being too loud, too messy and generally ‘too much’ for the audience to handle - I can probably count the number of quiet moments it has on one hand. But this is, of course, what the Safdie brothers want.
It’s a wonderful, horrible, gruesome, sensory overload. The squawk of his costumers, the threats of the loan sharks, his awful, office buzzer and the general mania of New York are woven into this, almost unbearably, rich tapestry of modern criminality.
As someone said in front of me while walking out of the cinema, ‘Well, it’s certainly no Click (2006).’, and it is arguably less polished than Good Time. Nevertheless, with Uncut Gems, indie’s darling duo continue to shine.
Featured: IMDb / Netflix
Do you agree that Sandler was robbed by the Academy for this performance?