Photo: Julieta Cervantes
by Calum Reed Featured Film Spotlight

Uncut Gems | Benny & Josh Safdie

December 28, 2019

Having recently explored heroin-heavy, vagabond living in Heaven Knows What (2014) and a bank robber’s desperation in Good Time (2017), directors Benny and Josh Safdie glimpse a different class of criminal underworld in Uncut Gems, an audacious, hysterical window into the shady dealings of New York City jeweller Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler). One of the Safdies’ trademark moves is an in media res opening, placing their audience immediately and immersively in the deep end, and the situation is no different here. There’s barely time to establish a connection to the characters before we’re seeing their worst sides, or to settle into the atmosphere of the film, with its din of constant chatter and background noise, and an imposing score from experimental producer Oneohtrix Point Never ensuring there’s nary a moment’s rest.

New problems or opportunities, sometimes the two blurred, present to Howard around every corner, and Uncut Gems essentially plays out as an intertwining accumulation of high-stakes bets which affect his financial prospects, distort his behavior, and poison his relationships with those around him. An expletive-armed Sandler is off the leash, fully committing to this troubled character on a level he certainly hasn’t gone to since Punch-Drunk Love (2002), if ever before. While Uncut Gems emphatically concludes that risk-taking eventually catches up with you, the particular way the Safdies assert this is both unexpected and satisfying. In line with its apt title, nothing about Uncut Gems is neat or tidy, as the Safdies weave a complex web of materialism, revealing the pursuit of wealth to be a toxic and ugly folly. For those not yet won over by this directing duo, Uncut Gems should prove to be a wake-up call, as this gargantuan, highwire effort demonstrates the two filmmakers at the absolute top of their game. 

Published as part of December 2019’s Before We Vanish.