“Fucked” is a word that comes up a lot in Howard Ratner’s (Adam Sandler) vocabulary. “You fucked me,” “I got fucked,” “I fucked him” or “I’m fucked” form the basis of most of Ratner’s business interactions with the less frequent but more poignant “I fucked up” trailing close behind. For Ratner, a jeweller in New York’s Diamond District with an out-of-control gambling addiction and outstanding debts that do nothing but appreciate, being fucked is an undesirable but seemingly unavoidable state of being. What drives Howard Ratner is not so much the idea of scoring big with one of his serpentine gambling schemes (though he certainly seems to enjoy that) rather than the perpetual, driving notion that he must get unfucked.
Ratner is another of the Safdie Brothers’ abrasive, wounded protagonists, a guy you’d be hard-pressed to want to spend time with, but one you slowly but surely find yourself having empathy for over the two chaotic hours that chronicle Ratner’s 2012 Passover season. Ratner runs a secretive jewelry shop tucked away in a nondescript area of the Diamond District. His main customer base seems to be the athletes and sundry celebrities that his estatz partner Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) bring to him — though none more impressive to the basketball-obsessed Ratner than Kevin Garnett (playing himself).
In an attempt to woo Garnett, Ratner hands over a precious chunk of uncut gems he’s just acquired through unclear means from Africa. Garnett becomes obsessed with the stone, so Ratner offers to lend it to him (as a good-luck charm) for his next game. What no one can really tell is that the acerbic, easily triggered Ratner is in way over his head before the stone (which he’s already agreed to auction a few days later) leaves his hands, an outstanding debt to his money-lender brother-in-law Arno (Eric Bogosian) being the most pressing — and threatening — issue at hand. (He’s also teetering on the precipice of divorce from his wife, played by Idina Menzel, and possibly on the verge of losing his mistress, played by Julia Fox in an absolute star-making performance, to the hands of Canadian R&B star the Weeknd.)
Uncut Gems crackles with electricity from the get-go, a looping, down-to-the-ground thriller of chaos in which everything is happening at once and the people who need to be paying attention simply aren’t. The Safdies push the naturalistic-yet-heightened aesthetic of their previous work even further, presenting a soundtrack saturated with information both useful and not and a frame (the film is shot by Darius Khondji) that somehow turns the mundane (offices, back alleys, Italian restaurants, suburban homes) into the surreal. There’s this idea that with the advent of DavidsTea and Chase Banks all over Manhattan, the Big Apple is somehow less compelling as a backdrop than it was in the greasy days of 42nd Street — what Uncut Gems suggests is that that whole world has just moved a handful of blocks over and a couple of stories up.
What the Safdies do perhaps better than anyone working today is immersion. That doesn’t only extend to the obvious and exterior (the aforementioned perpetual din of dialogue) but to the smallest details, from a cast that combines familiar faces and people culled from every walk of life (and sometimes, a kind of hybrid of the two, as evidenced by the presence of irascible sports radio host Mike Francesca as a bookie) to a deliberate kind of laissez-faire attitude to the art direction, which is absolutely pitch perfect in its off-handed sprezzatura. Every location, every costume, every face, haircut and car in Uncut Gems is where it needs to be. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that Uncut Gems locks you in from the beginning and does not let go — at least that’s been my experience both times I’ve seen it.
Traditionally, Adam Sandler’s dramatic roles have made great use of his inwardness. He usually plays unconfident, soft-spoken guys prone to fits of Sandler-esque rage. Howard Ratner is the opposite. Ratner lives his entire life rattling on the edge of a full blowout: he yells at everyone, even when he isn’t actually yelling, and his desire to “see results” out of every action place him on the precipice of all-out mania throughout the film. The quiet, child-like Sandler is deployed with great restraint and precision, and it’s precisely what elevates Uncut Gems above being an extremely stressful thriller about a dude who, on paper at least, doesn’t provoke much sympathy. One of Uncut Gems’ great triumphs is that the audience is never, not once, anywhere but on Ratner’s side despite every indication pointing to the opposite. For a film that has repeatedly been described as a two-hour anxiety attack, it’s surprisingly empathetic, to the point where you might find yourself wondering why you don’t work a little Howard Ratner logic into your own life.
Less overtly frantic than Good Time (owing in part to a more droning, elegiac synth score from Daniel Lopatin aka Oneohtrix Point Never) but arguably more intense, Uncut Gems is a film so fully realized and so thoroughly personable, it seems hard to believe the Safdies could ever top themselves. For most people involved in the movie business from as close or as far as you can be, a truly great film — one as indelible, as intense, as compulsive as Uncut Gems — is inspiring. It makes you want to go out there and make movies. Uncut Gems has the opposite effect on me: why would I even need to make a movie? The Safdies already made it. ■
Uncut Gems opens in Montreal theatres on Thursday, Dec. 26, before opening on Netflix worldwide in January. Watch the trailer below.
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