Watching Uncut Gems is like having an anxiety attack that lasts 135 minutes. Of course, there's more of an upside, because seeing such a beautifully-realized film brings a great sense of satisfaction. Still, the intensity level is ratcheted up so consistently and so skillfully that you feel as though you're going to pop. Filmmaking siblings Josh and Benny Safdie (Good Time) don't need gunplay, car chases, or martial arts fighting to generate suspense. They do it by creating a captivating lead character, then putting him in a situation where things continually go wrong in mesmerizing, unpredictable ways. I'm pretty sure I breathed a sigh of relief when the movie was over, right before thinking about how much I'd like to see it again.
Adam Sandler – in literally the best thing he's ever done – plays Howard Ratner, a New York City jeweler who specializes in selling to rappers and other notable figures. He's worked overtime to get his hands on a rare black opal, mined in Africa. The plan is to sell it off for a million dollar payday and get some of his debtors off his back. Then something happens that seems good but is actually quite bad. Howard has a “finder” named Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) who brings important clientele into the store. He shows up one day with basketball star Kevin Garnett (playing himself). To show off, Howard gives the hoopster a look at the black opal. Garnett makes some kind of connection with it and asks if he can borrow the jewel as a good luck token for that night's game. Howard reluctantly agrees.
The rest of Uncut Gems is about how difficult it is to get the opal back. That should be an easy task, but the Safdies (together with co-writer Ronald Bronstein) throw one monkey wrench after another in their lead character's way. Every time it seems that Howard is on the verge of retrieving it, something else happens to foil him. In the meantime, he's robbing Peter to pay Paul in terms of his debts, meaning there's a very real threat of getting beaten up by the goons coming for their money.
Approached differently, the plot here could support a really funny comedy. Lots of comedic potential lies in the misadventures of a guy having a hard time doing something seemingly simple. Uncut Gems is not a comedy, though, so instead of laughing, you tense up watching it. (And keep in mind, this is a movie where Adam Sandler gets into a scuffle with pop singer The Weeknd.) The Safdies ensure the audience senses the growing desperation Howard feels. Whenever that black opal is within his grasp, some new problem comes along, causing it to slip from his fingers yet again. There's one sequence, running several minutes, in which Howard panics because he can't get his shop's electromagnetic door to open, leaving an impatient Garnett and the opal trapped on the other side. Good luck not chewing your fingernails off during that scene.
Greed and ego are major themes in the film. Howard is obsessed with the idea of making a big score, of proving he's smart enough to become insta-rich. He wants to be a player, just like the people he sells his jewels to. That desire causes him to make sloppy, poorly thought-out choices. Opals have long fueled superstitions of bad luck. For Howard, the superstition comes true. Just by having this object in his orbit, he winds up facing the repercussions of all his bad decisions and all his self-absorbed behavior. He has a proverbial Moment of Reckoning.
Uncut Gems benefits greatly from the casting of Adam Sandler. In his comedies, he has always exhibited an angry side. Usually it's masked by goofiness, but it's there nonetheless. Sandler has no problem avoiding the mugging and broadness that made him a star. Instead, he brings out the anger, then marries it to a palpable sense of personal existential dread. Howard knows he's going down the drain rapidly. Sandler expertly conveys how the fast-talking, wheeling-and-dealing persona recedes and a “fight or flight” survival mechanism kicks in. Quite simply, the actor hits a career high with this film.
Uncut Gems also benefits from atmospheric cinematography, courtesy of Darius Khondji, plus a mood-enhancing electronic score by Daniel Lopatin. Both help crank up the tension. I've seen full-fledged thrillers that weren't a quarter as nerve-wracking as this movie is. Josh and Benny Safdie, aided by estimable work from Adam Sandler, have created an exhilarating, electrifying tale you won't easily shake off, nor will you want to.
out of four
Uncut Gems is rated R for pervasive strong language, violence, some sexual content and brief drug use. The running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes.