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Non-Review Review: Uncut Gems

Uncut Gems is a two-hour panic attack. And it’s brilliant.

Uncut Gems is a propulsive tension engine. The film follows the wheeling and dealing of Howard Ratner. Ratner operates a jewellery story in Manhattan’s Diamond District, but his real passion is gambling. Have accrued considerable debts, Howard concocts a simple plan to clear the slate. Smuggling in a rare black opal from East Africa, Howard plans to auction it and use the proceeds to settle up with his creditors. Naturally, things quickly spiral out of control as Howard’s impulsiveness and competitiveness get the better of him, pushing him to greater and greater lengths.

Off the chain.

Anxiety permeates Uncut Gems. Howard is a free-wheeling opportunist defined largely by his recklessness and his resilience, but his self-assuredness stands in contrast to the experience of watching Uncut Gems. As the film unfolds, the audience (and Howard) understands how fragile Howard’s elaborate improvisations truly are. Almost every scene in Uncut Gems threatens to bring Howard’s house of cards around his ears. Even the film’s triumphant and celebratory moments feel uncomfortable, as the audience and the protagonist wrestle with how precarious it all is.

Uncut Gems is a triumph, a shining diamond.

This diamond is about to get roughed up.

To be fair, directors Josh and Benny Safdie have some experience with anxiety-driven cinema. Good Time was an extremely tense thriller following a night in the life of two brothers trying desperately to stay one step ahead of everything that was chasing them. However, Uncut Gems offers a much more ambitious and much more satisfying experience. Despite its longer running time and larger cast, Uncut Gems is a much more tightly focused film.

The audience is introduced to Howard during a colonoscopy. It’s a wry creative choice, but a pointed one. The camera begins up Howard Ratner’s backside, arguably spends the rest of the film placing the audience in that space – Howard is constantly trying to stay one step ahead of the creditors and debt collectors who are on his ass. The camera is constantly following Howard as he remains in motion – down Manhattan streets, through his store, inside his penthouse apartment – because it understands that Howard is a shark. If he ever stops moving, he might die.

Howie gonna win.

As befitting that introductory shot, Uncut Gems is an incredibly claustrophobic film. Indeed, waiting for the results of his colonoscopy is one of the least stressful thing that Howard does over the course of the film. “Jews and colon cancer – what is that about?” Howard idly muses on the subject. “I thought we were the chosen people.” To be fair, even a terminal diagnosis would likely afford Howard more time than any of his creditors.

Cinematographer Darius Khondji tends towards long shots with a handheld camera, ratcheting up the tension while keeping the drama intimate. The camera follows Howard from one room to the next, bunching up on him, getting in tight. Uncut Gems often feels like a cacophony, as characters and actors cram into tight spaces – they often speak and stand over one another, crowding each other out and threatening to suffocate each other.

He ain’t playing.

The sound design is incredible. More than a good screen, Uncut Gems demands a high quality sound system. Characters are constantly cutting one another off and allowing exchanges to overlap, while ambient noise drowns out any real coherent conversation. Sound editors Chris Chae and Warren Shaw do fantastic work, along with sound and dialogue mixers Scott Cannizzaro, Mark DeSimone, Tom Fleischman, Anton Gold, Gavin Hecker, Chris Navarro, Helmut Scherz, John St. Denis and Michael Sterkin.

The world of Uncut Gems is pure and unfiltered chaos, of characters constantly yelling and talking without any sense of communication taking place. Despite the size of his debts and the volume of his creditors, it is no surprise that Howard has managed to keep his head above water as long as he has. Howard is a master at the art of talking loudly and saying nothing. Howard has thrived in this environment. Indeed, there’s a sense in which the insanity and precariousness of his situation excites him. “I’m gonna cum!” he gasps as he takes in the eponymous black opal.

The stones on this guy.

Adam Sandler is remarkable as Howard. As with his work on films like Punch Drunk Love, there’s a sense that Sandler understands how to skillfully pivot his strengths as a comedian into drama. So much of Sandler’s comedy is rooted in escalating discomfort, in a sense of mounting dread and anxiety about simmering tensions – so many Sandler comedies like The Waterboy or Happy Gilmore build towards Sandler’s characters just unleashing their pent-up anger and frustration. His best dramatic work – like Uncut Gems and Punch Drunk Love – steers into that tension.

The Sadfie Brothers are excellent at wringing tension from seemingly straightforward set-ups. Uncut Gems is full of seemingly innocuous moments that build and build; the blinking lights on Howard’s desk phone serving as a reminder of how many balls are in the air in a given moment, an extended sequence in which a jammed door magnet stands between Howard and the black opal that represents his opportunity to escape his creditors and start a new life.

Streets of rage.

The Sadfie Brothers understand that the key to such tension lies in layering it on. There are very few scenes where Howard only has one problem to worry about. Indeed, many of the film’s most tense moments hinge on sequences where Howard is immediately focused on one problem as another builds to a crescendo around him; taking a call from his doctor as his business partner realises that his property has gone missing, receiving ominous text messages in the midst of a family dinner, his encounter with a familiar face in an unusual setting.

The Sadfie Brothers use the tension within the film to create an interesting tension with the audience. Like Hitchcock, the Sadfie Brothers use the familiar emotional gravity of anxiety to pull the audience off-guard. Howard is a gambling addict. More than that, he is prone to terrible decisions. Howard lacks any real foresight or self-awareness, being as skilled at lying to himself as to others. However, Uncut Gems manages to manoeuvre the audience into rooting for his incredibly risky and fundamentally foolish plans.

Old New York.

Indeed, Uncut Gems captures the agony and the ecstasy of gambling. The audience cannot help but root for Howard, even as they watch him take unjustifiable risks and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Uncut Gems doesn’t follow the easiest path for a story like this. It consciously avoids throwing Howard a string of defeats and humiliations. Instead, Uncut Gems captures the extremes of the experience very effectively. Howards small victories are all the more powerful for the contrast they provide with his defeats, his losses stinging all the worse.

It helps that Uncut Gems is grounded in a very particular time and place. The film unfolds against the backdrop of Manhattan in 2012, and is populated by signifiers of the era. Celebrities like The Weeknd, John Amos, Ca$h Out and Trinidad James all play themselves. Kevin Garnett is a major part of the plot, sharing a couple of key scenes with Howard. More than that, the Sadfies even cast local celebrities like Wayne Diamond to add a bit of texture and flavour to the film.

Raising sense of dreadlock.

The 2012 setting adds a little context to Uncut Gems. This is a version of New York that is just four years away from the economic crash, focusing on characters operating at the margins struggling to stay afloat. The initial optimism of Barack Obama’s ascent has faded, even as his second electoral victory looms on the horizon. There is a sense that everybody is just about keeping their heads above water, but that things could very quickly take a turn for the worse.

One need only look to the box office to get a sense of the tensions simmering away in 2012; The Avengers represented one of the last gasps of Obama-era blockbuster optimism as The Dark Knight Rises and The Hunger Games suggested real economic anxiety bubbling away beneath the surface. Uncut Gems offers a hint of a New York (and an America) caught between those two extremes. Uncut Gems is a period piece in more than just its casting and its soundtrack, instead offering a snapshot of a moment in time.

The art of the deal.

Of course, Uncut Gems also gestures at something bigger. The film repeatedly suggests that Howard and Garnett are both drawn to the eponymous rock by some primal force. The stone traces its roots to Ethiopia, which would place it quite close to the origins of humanity as a species. “This is old-school, Middle Earth shit,” Howard tells Garnett, as Garnett watches his own life reflected in the gem’s enchanting glow. (The film is bookended by transitions that suggest a primal connection between Howard and the gem, perhaps both forged of the same raw elements.)

David Killion has argued that the movie’s central preoccupation is “intense anxiety, which feels like a very Jewish theme.” Howard spends the entire movie in a state of transit and uncertainty, never truly belonging or integrating and always fearing violence. (His separation from his family is a big theme.) Indeed, the film wears its Jewishness on its sleeve. The Sadfie Brothers are Jewish. Sandler is not only Jewish, but his novelty records have established him as an almost archetypal example of American Jewishness. Demany introduces Howard as “just a f!$king crazy ass Jew.”

Shining on.

There has been some minor controversy around the portrayal of Howard in Uncut Gems, mostly rooted in criticisms that Howard represents a lot of the uncomfortable stereotypes of Jewish people at a time when antisemitism is on the rise. It helps that both Howard and the film are keenly aware of this tension. At a school play, Howard’s daughter plays a character blessed so that “every time she speaks, gold coins shall come forth from her mouth.” Confronted with this image, Howard just deadpans, “Wow.”

Howard’s Jewishness is an important part of his identity. He takes part in rituals with family. When his girlfriend Julia gets a tattoo of his name, he is both flattered and horrified. “You cannot get buried with me now,” he notes, acknowledging old traditions about religious burials. There is a sense in which Howard has found a way to use these clichés and stereotypes to strengthen himself. Indeed, as much as certain aspects of Howard’s character might hint at uncomfortable stereotypes, his character is defined by a remarkable fortitude.

Everybody’s working for the Weeknd.

Howard refuses to be defeated. At one point, when Howard is stripped naked and locked in the trunk of his car, he takes it in his stride. Convincing his wife to let him out of the trunk, he simply dresses himself in a spare set of cloths that he seems to carry with him for this sort of occasion. A recurring joke has Howard encountering his debtors on the street, only for them to confiscate his watch as payment. Naturally, Howard always has a spare.

Uncut Gems unfolds at the margins of capitalism. Although the bulk of the film is set in Manhattan, it largely avoids the traditional markers of these sorts of studies; there are no bankers or lawyers, just pawn shop owners and debt collectors. Introducing Howard to Garnett, Demany stresses the overlap between Howard and the hiphop community. When Demany wonders why Howard is so obsessed with basketball, Howard points to the Jewish player Ossie Schectman, who scored the first two-pointer in what would become the NBA.

A baller move.

Uncut Gems is fascinated by the relationships forged on the margins. Although Howard is a consummate liar, it seems likely that he believes what he says when he assures Garnett, “We’re the same.” In fact, the casting of Garnett is a very clever choice – even if there is apparently an alternate version of the film starring Kobe Bryant. Garnett has a reputation as a player who is willing to do (and say) whatever it takes to give him the advantage. He makes an effective counterpoint to Howard, who is just as driven and focused.

Indeed, the central tension of Uncut Gems lies in the audience’s understanding that Howard probably cannot win, that the game is structured in such a way that – even without his vices – Howard would never be able to succeed despite his ingenuity. “I’m the joke here,” Howard admits to Garnett during their conversation, talking about how satisfying it is to have the opportunity to press an advantage. Indeed, Uncut Gems suggests that part of the allure of the wheeling and dealing associated with gambling is that it affords Howard at least the illusion of a chance of winning.

A cut above.

In some ways, in its exploration of the dynamics between marginalised groups that inevitably compete against themselves for the scraps at the edge of the table, Uncut Gems resonates with awards season films like Parasite or Joker. Indeed, its preoccupation with this sort of economic grifting and struggling resonates with Knives Out. At one point, Garnett pulls Howard up on his plans to profit from the exploitation of the people who mined the gem in the first place.

Indeed, the gem’s origin suggests a point of intersection between these two communities, both striving for acceptance and for their share of the profits. “You ever hear about African Jews?” Howard asks as he showcases the black opal. He elaborates, “It’s deep sh!t.” Indeed, the closest thing that Uncut Gems offers as a moral thesis statement is delivered to Garnett in the locker room at half-time, even though it applies just as much to Howard. “If you want to go fast, go alone,” his coach urges. “But if you want to go far, go together. We’re like roaches, and you can’t kill us.”

The unGarnettished truth.

 

Uncut Gems is a dazzling piece of work, a grand tragedy wrapped in a ticking time bomb. It’s priceless.

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