Uncut Gems is a dark and nerve racking experience from the very start. The film opens on an Ethiopian mine. During the scene, the camera lingers on the aftermath of a gruesome workplace accident where a miner suffers from a serious and bloody life threatening injury. The workplace is in pandemonium as their wounded colleague is bleeding out. The scene then shifts to an opal: a beautiful freshly mined uncut gem. The contrast between the brutal occupational injury and the mesmerizing opal is deliberate and symbolic, telling the audience that greed has consequences. If only the characters in the film would heed this lesson.
Uncut Gems is a diamond in the rough. While the Safdie brothers’ film possesses a crude, bloody, and brutal exterior, the movie is, dare I say, a cinematic gem. From start to finish, the film works as a white knuckle thriller transporting the audience through a tale of greed, hustling, and high stakes gambling addiction. Packed with unconventional storytelling, the film weaves a breathtakingly bizarre fable that’s simultaneously discomforting and illuminating. As a result, Uncut Gems is easily one of 2019’s best and boldest films.
The story follows Howard Ratner: a New York jeweler who makes a series of high stakes bets with money and property that mostly doesn’t belong to him. An opal carved from an Ethiopian mine lays at the heart of these wagers. From there, Howard specifically bets on both the Boston Celtics and their star player Kevin Garnett to have a big game during their 2012 playoff series against the Philadelphia 76ers. If victorious, Howard would receive a major payout
Uncut Gems is intense. While it isn’t heavy on action, the human drama is incredibly potent, and the film conveys a suspenseful tone through its tight editing. The movie flies from mad scenario to mad scenario as Howard plays schemes on various money men who range from shady to respectable. Whether they’re lenders, bookkeepers, casinos, criminals, auction houses, or customers at his jewelry store, the film effectively foments tension while Howard plays this dangerous game with people and businesses demanding him to pay up. Howard’s home life troubles with his near defunct marriage to Dinah (Idina Menzel) and second apartment he shares with his girlfriend Julia (Julia Fox) only add to the fast paced nonstop drama as his life spirals out of control. The result is a breathless movie experience with no respite.
The performances heighten the tension perfectly. In fact, Uncut Gems’ cinematic triumphs are in large part due to Adam Sandler: the film’s unlikely lead actor. Sandler, who is normally in miserably bad comedies filled with toilet humor, always has the capability of being a great actor. On rare occasions, Sandler immerses himself into a character and transforms himself as an actor. He did it in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love, and he has now done it again as Howard Ratner in Uncut Gems. In the film, Sandler’s voice, facial expressions, and mannerisms are so alien to his normally laid back average joe demeanor that my brain created a cognitive distortion separating Sandler the man and Sandler as the scheming and lying Howard. Make no mistake: Sandler’s performance in Uncut Gems is so good that I forgot he was Adam Sandler.
Admittedly, Sandler received dramatic support from an unlikely costar in Kevin Garnett. Yes, really. The famed former NBA superstar has a surprisingly meaty role in the film and plays himself in what may be Uncut Gems’ most inspired creative choice not named Adam Sandler. Garnett, the character, desires Howard’s opal because he believes the gem has mystical qualities that make him be a better basketball player. As humorous as it sounds, Garnett, the man, plays this storyline with a straight (if slightly smirking) face.
Uncut Gems is deceptively funny. While the film is first and foremost a riveting and harrowing dramatic thriller, the movie allows several moments of brevity. Afterall, some scenes and scenarios are so bizarre that they become moderately hysterical by default. Normally I’d share one of these sequences, but Uncut Gems is best experienced blind. No spoilers here.
Uncut Gems’ comedic moments are in service to the overall narrative and bolster the film’s art house aesthetic. Even though the film is cut and paced to create suspense, Uncut Gems features quieter moments that allow the audience to reflect on the film. The film is a meditative experience and I’ve been pondering about its potential deeper meanings for days.
By the end, Uncut Gems is an artistic triumph. While the film works as a fantastic dramatic thriller, the whole experience is greater than the sum of its parts. Whether it’s Sandler’s Oscar worthy performance, the tense editing, smart script, or how it tells a story from a Jewish American perspective, Uncut Gems is a cinematic marvel. Forget about your preconceived feelings about Adam Sandler, the man delivers the goods here. Like the film itself, Sandler too is a diamond in the rough.