Uncut Gems is The Exorcist for gambling: a shell-shocking, nerve-shattering dose of chaos incarnate.
Every once in a while, cinema is blessed with an event. Whether it be a blockbuster, ultra-horror or obscure triumph, word-of-mouth transforms a film into a cultural moment, leaving an impenetrable legacy in its wake.
For example, Saw’s delectable grimness or Avatar’s game-changing spectacle. The latest film from Josh and Benny Safdie could and should be headed for such an epitaph (particularly with Netflix distribution), built on a mega double-tap of raw exhilaration and an Adam Sandler performance for the ages. ‘That’s history right there, you understand?’
Invoking William Friedkin’s horror masterpiece isn’t a slight comparison: the film opens on grim, shin-breaking injuries in the Ethiopian mineral mines. Two keen prospectors chip off a block of, ahem, uncut gems – if Lankester Merrin’s amulet instils dread, this sparkling black opal, ‘old school, Middle-Earth shit’, intoxicates and entrances the beholder.
We then shift to New York circa 2012, with Howard Ratner (Sandler) powering through the city’s prolific Diamond District, archaic iPhone to ear. The period is seamlessly envisioned, with the tiniest flourishes of paraphernalia illustrating each frame.
He’s a crook who doesn’t know how to hold ’em, fold ’em, walk away or when to run. The Safdies know character, they breathe it: Good Time‘s Connie was contemptible, but Howie is a different breed of maniacal, brought explosively to life by a career-best Sandler.
Stupidly optimistic, stubborn, erratic and obliviously self-centred: as his estranged wife (played by Frozen‘s Idina Menzel) puts it, he’s the most annoying person you’ll ever meet. Yet, as a prime-cut sycophant, he’s also a slippery snake when folks come a-calling, whether it be for blood or jewels.
The opening 15 minutes paint a clear picture of Howie’s life as a business owner: running up debts with some pretty nasty (albeit inevitable) bastards; placing mad bets with money from here, there and anywhere he can (never has gambling seemed like such a cursed artform); and cuddling his mistress (a fantastic first-time Julia Fox) to cool off from the mayhem.
Foes, friends and money are set on a (somehow more hectic) collision course however when Kevin Garnett (played by ‘KG’ himself) enters Howie’s shop and sees his recently acquired Ethiopian opal. His eyes glimmer and widen, he needs it, spiritually (another bewitched by its spell). And then, off we go.
The subsequent two acts are hazily high-tempo, akin to being hurried along a narrowing wire above shark-infested waters (cinematographer Darius Khondij somehow keeps the pace). The reprieves are short-lived, the lows are catastrophic, but the momentum is relentless – like experiencing the drop in Inception over and over and over again.
The way the Safdies play with their ensemble is downright ingenious, orchestrating frantic, hair-grabbing conversations over one another: layers of shouting boom on top of the sound design, and with the score injecting even more energy (particularly in an excruciating scene with KG stuck between two doors), it creates a constant aural intensity the likes of which you’ll have never experienced.
Much should be said for Daniel Lopatin’s dazzlingly versatile composition. Its emerging notes soar like a chemical synth reaction, transitioning through techno rhythm and blues, with a dash of a chanting choir. He manages to capture all the underlying emotional beats, hitting elation and thrills, hypnosis and catharsis.
A well-deserved hat tip to the Safdies’ acerbic mastery of bad language in their script too, with a leaderboard-bursting number of ‘fucks’ every minute – just another way in which they’re proving to be generational legends in the making. There’s also sensational one-liners, for example: ‘Jews and colon cancer… I thought we were the chosen people?’
They just create an entirely believable world. Sure, there’s high-rollers and mobsters – but there’s also sensitive family dynamics (with particular attention paid to Jewish customs, a relatively uncommon sight in cinema without outside plot purpose), ugly but well-sketched characters and an entire background of folks who are never given a raw deal (the Safdies famously hire everyday people on the spot to appear in bit roles, such as a delivery guy).
As Howie tries to navigate the plasma ball of tangling anxiety, Sandler shines bright like a diamond. It’s his finest performance to date, building on the dramatic chops he’s more than capable of (as seen in Punch-Drunk Love and Funny People) but also tapping into the burrowed sleaziness of his goofball roster. He’s never been better – and the Academy left him out to dry.
The film’s demons linger over the air it breathes, coming into full-force in one of cinema’s greatest final acts. Look around you if you’re lucky enough to catch it in the cinema – see the heads burrowed in hands, listen out for the hurried gasps. That’s why we go to the movies.
A shimmering, feature-length panic attack: Uncut Gems is the most stressful movie ever made.
Uncut Gems is in select cinemas now and on Netflix from January 31.