How far would you go for the payday of a lifetime? What would you do to get there? These are just two of the surface-level questions posed by the Safdie Brothers’ new thriller, Uncut Gems. It’s a ferocious and sublime gambling drama and is easily among the year’s very best films.
Josh and Benny Safdie, the New York-based directors of Good Time and Heaven Knows What, once again return to New York City for this gambling saga. Their trademark handheld shots and alternating usage of close-ups and wide shots of the city all return, to absolutely nerve-shredding effect. The Safdies remain masters at making the viewer feel right in the action, placing them into the crowded side streets and jewelry stores of the Diamond District. Their control of pacing is on full display here, as well as their impeccable sense of place. This film is New York through and through, cementing the Safdies as some of the most comfortable and confident voices in modern cinema.
Uncut Gems follows the story of Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a gambling-addicted jewelry store owner who comes into possession of a seemingly priceless stone. He then begins placing a series of high-stakes bets that could lead to the score of a lifetime, consequences be damned. By now, you’ve probably heard how intense this film is, and that is absolutely the truth. This plot moves along a blistering pace, going from bet to bet with barely any room to breathe. The story stretches from the mines of Ethiopia to the nightclubs of NYC, coalescing into a sprawling but focused crime yarn. It also features the best final act of the year this side of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, so be prepared.
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
None of the action works without its central character, and it cannot be overstated how much Adam Sandler nails this role. He’s proven to be a formidable dramatic actor in Punch-Drunk Love and The Meyerowitz Stories, but he gives the performance of his career in this film. Sandler’s Ratner is annoying, cocky, and fairly oblivious, but he somehow remains someone you want to see win. He brings an intensity and commitment to the role, and completely disappears into this character as a result. The supporting cast also features a shockingly good Kevin Garnett (portraying himself) and a phenomenal debut for actress Julia Fox as Howard’s assistant and mistress. She’s absolutely one to watch for in the future. It’s also worth noting how calculated the Safdies cast minor characters; they capture such a specific type of New Yorker in this film that brings a whole other level to the depth of characters.
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
Daniel Lopatin (also known as Oneohtrix Point Never), who scored Good Time as well, has crafted another hypnotic synth score that’s reminiscent of Tangerine Dream and Vangelis soundtracks. As excellent as the score is, the real triumph here is with the sound design of the film. It frequently borders on unbearable, overwhelming the viewer with the cacophony of day-to-day city life, overlapping dialogue, and the score. This may be off-putting to some viewers (understandably so), but others will find it all the more engrossing and intense. Bold, intense sound design here.
The story takes place in 2012, and the designers have done a terrific job capturing the excess and oddness of American culture at that time. From the gaudy colors of Howard’s outfits to the excessive jewelry, this film perfectly captures the sleaziness and faux-flexing of the era. There’s also a scene in a nightclub featuring black lights that gives the wardrobe department a chance to shine.
Uncut Gems is a lot of movie. It has a breakneck and tense pace, eccentric but surprisingly human characters, and a sound experience that captures the cacophonous nature of the narrative. But above all else, it tells an engrossing and cautionary tale about addiction, pride, and what can happen when bets go too far. It’s a new thriller classic, and easily among the finest films of the year. Go find out how you win.