We’ve all seen plenty of after school specials and PSAs telling us that crime doesn’t pay, and tons of films where playing to and with criminals doesn’t end well…even in Guy Ritchie flicks. But why not throw a log another log on that fire? A few years ago, The Safdie Brothers (Josh and Benny) cast Robert Pattinson as the lead in Good Time. What. A. Ride. It’s been a decade since Daddy Lonlegs and The Black Balloon, and since then, they seem to enjoy and have found their niche taking everybody – from their lead actor, the uncomfortably put-upon supporting cast, and even the audience – through the ringer.
Uncut Gems is very much in that same vein, and the directing duo have been honing their skill and their focus to give us another grueling and agonizing tale of woe. The Safdie Brothers craft something entirely off-putting but you tend to stay invested on the off chance that something good will happen to the main character. It’s a long-shot, but we can dream, can’t we? Their films have a lot in common with the likes of young Darren Aronofsky and Steve McQueen.
Honestly, even though you can safely say that the Safdie’s films make you feel bad, it’s a compliment; that’s their goal and they are getting better and better at it. When the lights go up in the theater, you’re left with a feeling that isn’t bittersweet, it’s just a tad north of straight-up depressing. Even if this is one of the more technically and narratively satisfying films of the year, the aftertaste is like having sandpaper on your tongue.
Adam Sandler has received a lot of flak over the years and it’s staggering to think of how, for three decades, his dopey and childish brand of humor can still garner an audience. But every once in a while he surprises us. That’s the true test of a thespian: make all previous efforts disappear in light of their latest endeavor. Sandler has shown us that with Punch Drunk Love, Reign Over Me, and because of his work in Uncut Gems, he’s going to be remembered and appreciated for far more than The Ridiculous 6 and Mr. Deeds (even if he grabs an Oscar, he’ll still be Happy Gilmore to a great many fans…and that’s not a bad thing).
In the film, Howard Ratner (Sandler) is a charismatic New York City jeweler who, time and again, puts himself in sticky situations. Only this time, he’s in a precarious high-wire act, balancing business, family, and encroaching adversaries on all sides. Everything in this film feels like a dream, and good or bad you don’t believe that what’s happening is really happening. Specifically, it’s a very ’80s inspired dream and much of that is established by the opening credits – trippy music playing over a nebulous quest through what can only be defined as mineral deposits of this film’s MacGuffin – a pinfire black opal.
Daniel Lopatin‘s score drapes such an atmospheric and psychedelic musical netting over the narrative starting with said intro, and casts itself far into the first act as a way of weaving scenes together. What is noteworthy here is that the score itself works as audiovisual counterpoint to the story being told; it offers signs of hope when, really, there is no such thing for Sandler. With any luck, this will be as well received as Cliff Martinez‘s work on Drive.
The film culminates in a dizzying finale, a real nail-biter, and with credit to having Scorsese as a producer, Uncut Gems cuts deep. Now Sandler will get a lot of attention (and it’s quite funny that his character is like Adam Sandler doing an impression of someone else impersonating him), but the same should be said for the truly wild card casting. Yet the likes of Idina Menzel, LaKeith Stanfield, Eric Bogosian, even Judd Hirsch and Kevin Garnett deliver the goods. In a film filled with black lights, bruises, and blunt force belligerence, it’s an out of controlride that you won’t want to end.
Like perpetual psychedelic quicksand, Uncut Gems plays like this generation’s Requiem For A Dream. The Safdies keep the nervous tension sky high, and their latest narrative is taut, terrifying and terrific.