Minor spoilers ahead for “Uncut Gems”
“Uncut Gems” starts off with a frantic scene of an injured man onsite an Ethiopian mining camp and maintains the same uncomfortable sense of dread and anxiety for its entire runtime.
Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is a sleazy, aggressive jeweler in New York’s Diamond District. Fast-talking, loud and incredibly stupid, Ratner is easily the most complex man-child Sandler has played to date. He’s always planning his next get-rich-quick scheme, often at the expense of his family and associates. In order to pay off his loan shark brother-in-law and his cohorts, he’s depending on a black opal from the mining camp to sell big, at a value he estimates to be around $1 million.
After the film opens in Ethiopia and we see the miners finding the precious jewel, the camera zooms in on the opal’s vibrant glow, weaving throughout a beautiful array of colors reminiscent of the northern lights, and finally ending up in Howie’s colon, mid-colonoscopy, setting the bar for how personal the audience gets with him in this character study.
The directors, Josh and Benny Safdie, hold nothing back when giving the audience headache-inducing, tense scenes. If there is one thing to remember about Ratner, it’s that he will always make the worst decision possible in any given situation and dig himself into deeper holes inside of the massive hole of debt and adultery he’s already in.
Despite Ratner’s despicable nature and how he looks like bathes in grease, Sandler brings an undeniable charm to the character, so much so that rooting for him to win is part of his appeal. He’s gotten rich off of scamming clients, pawning valuable items that aren’t his and talking out of both sides of his mouth in nearly every conversation. To top it all off, he’s cheating on his wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel), with a young employee at his private jewelry store, Julia (played by newcomer Julia Fox).
Ratner’s latest plan is to make loads of money by selling the opal at an auction for a price significantly higher than what he bought it for. However, when former NBA player Kevin Garnett is brought into his store by Ratner’s employee Demany (LaKeith Stanfield) looking for some bling, Ratner can’t help but show off his newly acquired jewel to the basketball player. After becoming entranced by it, Garnett superstitiously believes the opal is his key to winning that night’s game. Garnett pressures Howie into loaning him the opal as a talisman of sorts to keep for the game, giving him his Knicks championship ring as collateral. Suddenly taken over by a bet he sees he can make, he accepts. He then immediately goes to a nearby pawnshop to put the ring on display for a few days in exchange for a large sum of cash that he uses to bet on Garnett’s performance in the game. Of course, none of this money goes to the loan sharks that are becoming increasingly aggravated with him.
Ratner’s terrible decision-making is only amplified by the Safdie brothers’ one-of-a-kind filmmaking. Anyone who has seen their previous films, like 2017’s “Good Time,” knows that the Safdies overload their films with powerful ambient noises, multiple characters in a scene talking over one another, and a swelling score. “Uncut Gems” is no different. However, the aggravating and tense nature of the film plays to its benefit, as there are no breaks in the action. Howie doesn’t seem to sleep or eat, always prowling around for something or someone to make money off of and often paying for his con artist behavior in painful and humiliating ways.
Ratner’s ridiculous deals spill over into his personal life as well, as the loan sharks attend his daughter’s school play, so he stammers something about using the restroom to his family and tries to make his escape. The sharks catch up to him though, interrogate him on how he’s going to repay them and shove him naked in the trunk of his car. He has to call his wife to come retrieve him and she sighs at the sight of her estranged husband in his vulnerable state.
The film makes it clear that Ratner is too focused on making money to notice how it affects those around him, as he has practically no relationship with his children and his wife plans to divorce him after Passover.
The film reaches a head when Ratner is finally able to retrieve the opal from Garnett and make enough money to pay back the loan sharks from auctioning it. His uncanny ability to choose the worse of two evils sets him up for failure once again, as he best on another one of Garnett’s games and sends Julia with over $100,000 to wager on it.
“Uncut Gems” maintains the Safdie brother’s trademark of films that feel all too real. Actors are picked right off the street, like Keith William Richards’ Nico as the loan shark’s muscle. Darius Khondji’s cinematography provides a brilliant glimpse into the fast-paced nature of Howard’s existence. The film starts off frantic and doesn’t let up, as it constantly piles more and more tension into every scene, culminating in the inevitable.
“Uncut Gems” is in theaters now and will be put on Netflix in January.