REVIEW: Uncut Gems (2019)

Theatrical Release Poster – A24

The following is a review of Uncut Gems — Directed by Josh & Benny Safdie.

“Keep an eye on the Safdie Brothers.” — I ended my short review of 2017’s Good Time thusly. When I watched that film I don’t think I knew of the Safdies Brothers’ early career as young but already somewhat prolific independent filmmakers. To me, they were (and, in a way, still are) exciting newcomers to the world stage of cinema. Good Time was a brilliant but anxiety-inducing nightmare that gave us Robert Pattinson’s finest performance, thus far. That film showcased the Safdies’ talents as directors both with the exquisite mastering of tension and anxiousness, as well as the ability to pull out awards-worthy performances from actors who have a tendency to be pigeonholed. With Uncut Gems, the filmmaking duo has done it again. Adam Sandler delivers his finest performance since 2017’s The Meyerowitz Stories in the Safdies’ Good Time-follow-up, which is even more nailbiting and even more impressive.

The Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems tells the story of Howard Ratner (played by Adam Sandler), a Jewish-American jeweler, who is awfully addicted to gambling. Whenever he gets a dime, he immediately risks it to win some freakish sports bet. This addiction makes it increasingly difficult to pay off his debts. Loan-sharks and bodyguards chase him all over New York City in an effort to strongarm him into finally giving back the money that he has gambled away. Howard needs a big ‘score,’ so to speak. Howard is confident that a rare Ethiopian black opal will finally earn him the money to pay off all of his debts. Howard is confident that the opal could earn him up to $1,000,000 when auctioned. Just when Howard receives the opal, Kevin Garnett, a popular Basketball-player, falls in love with Howard’s prized possession. In fact, the sports star insists on holding onto it for good luck. Soon, Howard has to go through hell to get it back.

I think some people will likely be turned off by several elements in Uncut Gems. The Safdies don’t hold back here. Sometimes the editing and the sounds are so frenetic that the film is almost headache-inducing. It took me some getting used to, but, once I got used to it, I ended up really loving this film. Uncut Gems is a legitimately nerve-racking film that almost makes Good Time look calm by comparison. Again, it might vex you or give you a migraine. But I also think that cineastes who were not previously convinced might become disciples of this filmmaking duo, or, at the very least, understand their appeal. Because Uncut Gems confirms what many cineastes have suspected: these filmmakers have it. The Safdies’ latest film has that almost intangible quality that is indicative of a true work of art. What they have made here just tenses you up. It is so anxiety-inducing, so claustrophobic, and so stressful. It will put people on edge, and you may want to take a shower after you watch it. The Safdies’ interpretation of the diamond district in New York City in 2012 is as disorienting and maddening as it is intoxicating. You can’t take your eyes off the film as Daniel Lopatin’s relentless synthesizer-heavy score overwhelms you. All things considered, it is pretty amazing.

“This is how I win.”

Adam Sandler’s performance here has been the source of many headlines announcing the comedian’s return to form, and he is as good as advertised. This is one of his best performances, but it is also very different from his critically-lauded performances in both Punch-Drunk Love and The Meyerowitz Stories. The Safdies have unlocked a great performance from the polarizing comedian. It is tough to imagine anyone else playing this character. Sandler is incredibly convincing as this anxious but obsessed mad man. It isn’t just a strong dramatic performance. Sandler is actually quite funny in Uncut Gems, as well.

Before I pressed play on Netflix (Uncut Gems has been released on Netflix outside of the United States), I expected that LaKeith Stanfield, who I am becoming a big fan of, would also deliver a standout performance here. But even though Stanfield is a memorable addition to the cast, it is, surprisingly, the former professional basketball player Kevin Garnett (playing a fictionalized version of himself) who gives the outstanding supporting performance in Uncut Gems. In one of the best scenes, Garnett’s character is the one who confidently calls out Howard on his immoral deeds that led him down this path, which is eating him alive. Julia Fox, who plays Howard’s girlfriend, also gives a surprising stunner of a performance, though I don’t think it is as memorable as Garnett or Sandler’s performance.

Josh and Benny Safdie’s Uncut Gems is a nail-biting stunner. It is a truly overwhelming and, at times, exhausting film that nevertheless completely hooks you. Adam Sandler is exceptional as an infuriating character whose waking nightmare is every bit as grueling as it is mesmerizing.

9 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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