There’s this kind of electric energy in Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems that makes us anxious for the whole duration. Everybody yells instead of talking; everybody moves frenetically, violently, and urgently. There’s Adam Sandler wearing a striking attire seemingly inspired by Lando Calrissian, complete with a full-frontal display of jewelry. There’s NBA star, Kevin Garnett, as himself and there are actual Celtics’ match footages. There’s The Weeknd portraying his younger, rising-to-stardom self. And yet, the centerpiece of it all is a piece of a rare gemstone—the titular MacGuffin.
The gem is a mysterious African black opal smuggled from a troubled mine in Ethiopia before arriving at Howard Ratner’s gem & jewelry store. Sandler at one of his pinnacle-performances (after Punch-Drunk Love and The Meyerowitz Story) is Howard, a man of glamors and gambles. His marriage with Dinah (Idina Menzel) is falling apart while he’s cheating with his mistress, Julia (Julia Fox). The gem is supposed to be his way out of debts that keep piling on him; most notably with his loanshark brother-in-law, Arno (Eric Bogosian). However, we know it that, with Howard, he’s just gonna gamble his luck. After all, gamblers gonna gamble.
While the gem becomes the centerpiece, it’s Sandler’s Howard who makes everything works in Uncut Gems. The character reminds us of some of the most iconic Coen Brothers’ characters (most notably from The Big Lebowski). Howard is the personification of gifts and curses at the same time. He has this charisma which helps him assuring people about his sinister plans (most of the time related to gambling) and talking himself out of the danger. He’s layered but even after the layers are peeled off one by one; he’s always come up with surprising acts. After all, he’s a gambler and he gambles everything. Sandler owns the role perfectly, making it his almost exclusively. There’s something within Howard and his decisions that we barely fathom; it’s interesting because we see the same thing through Sandler. That’s why the character sticks with him closely.
Safdies writing the piece with Borenstein (also co-writing Good Times) showcase their affinity with the chaos that revolves on financial debts and the crooks. The brothers’ fetish for poetic justice sees a heightened level in the brink of the chaos that Uncut Gems bring. From the moment the loanshark storming around to the moment where Howard confidently places a bet on an NBA match, we are voluntarily and unknowingly falling into an anxiety-inducing ride. The protagonist, however, only makes the whole voyage even worrisome with his spontaneous acts. Even though we are aware of the impending poetic justice and the fact that Howard is barely a likable character, we sympathize with him. That’s how Safdies won their game.
Another game that pays off with Safdies is the foreshadowing game. Howard plays with the eyes of gremlins or Howard recites the plagues during the Passover; it seems like he’s predicting the future but, even, when I am writing this, none of it is a hardcore spoiler. The breathtaking narrative of Uncut Gems will put you at the edge of the seat more than a horror movie will do. And when the foreshadowing game pays off, you will get the chill on your neck that is hard to forget. At this point, Adam Sandler as Howard Ratner has already clawed his existence right on your mind.