Carat on a stick for Sandler.
If you want a thriller without the multi-million dollar budget or CGI explosions then the Safdie brothers are your saviours. Casting Adam Sandler as a frantic New York jeweller who just can’t help getting himself in trouble, Uncut Gems, feels like an intense side story given your full attention.
It’s hard to talk about this film without addressing the mixed blessing that is Adam Sandler. In some films he provides manic, comedic chops, while other roles are so bad it feels like your brain will melt out of your ears. Here he channels his mania in a rare dramatic performance, which is usually where he’s at his best.
Playing Howard Ratner, a Jewish-American jeweller, he’s already in over his head when the film begins, owing money, placing bets and taking chances he must surely know he shouldn’t take. When he acquires a precious Ethiopian gem, things don’t go the way he planned. He gambles with his business, his safety and even his own family, and Sandler’s performance pulls you in, providing a clammy-palmed final third while he paces the shop floor.
Pathetic though Howie’s story is, there is a gleeful thrill to following him and following his drama; you’re never rooting for him but the close shots make you feel like a punter, being buzzed in and out of the store.
‘Close shots make you feel like a punter, being buzzed in and out of the store.’
This is a man who might appear to have it all due to wealth, but who is really in bits. Anyone who caught the Safdie’s fifth film Good Time can expect a similar kind of engrossing, minute story driven by a tumultuous lead. This film spreads the scope a little further with a larger cast (including Lakeith Stanfield and former basketball star Kevin Garnett, playing himself) but keeps the same low-key tint to the visuals and a caperish thread to follow.
Even in the soundtrack, Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never) provides the score again, with electronic ambience, delivering an early 90s feel to give the film a hard edge (it pairs particularly well with the sequences where the camera dives into the opal gem which Howie stakes his reputation on).
Upon being introduced to Howie, it can be a little noisy, with characters talking over each other and Howie’s own attention flipping as his brain switches tracks multiple times in any given scene. Eventually, you get used to this and lose yourself in Sandler’s performance and the story the Safdie’s have created, only cringing more and more the deeper the hole Howie digs. The physical effect of the anxiety grows as the film goes on, to the point where you put your hand up to your head, wanting to shake Howie to end the nightmare.
Part thriller, part crime caper, Uncut Gems doesn’t go too heavy on the ethics of gem trading, aside from a brief exchange between Kevin Garnett and Howie, and even then it’s more a conversation exploring the nature of wanting to be the winner. Everything is on the line for Howie and it’s a wild ride you get pulled into through great performances and well-written story.