It’s not often you begin a movie up someone’s ass. Yes, you read that right. Uncut Gems opens with a sweeping 7,000-mile journey from the Webo mine in Ethiopia to Adam Sandler’s colon, this transit is achieved via the mystical microscopic interior of a rare opal. It’s an impressive, unexpected sequence that connects Sandler’s crazed jeweler with the object of his infatuation; this iridescent rock is the obsession of Howard “Howie Bling” Ratner, a diamond district rascal and basketball betting man who aims to make a killing with the prized mineraloid at an auction—or risk being killed. See, Howard is $100,000 in debt to the intimidating Arno and his violent ruffians. To pay them off, he ventures on an anxiety-inducing odyssey through the concrete jungle, rubbing elbows with Kevin Garnett and The Weeknd during his exhausting spiral into danger.
If this all seems like a pretty complicated mess, you’d be half right. Directors Josh and Benny Safdie excel in the genre of chaos—their previous city-set thrill ride Good Time also had a lot of moving parts in its neon-lit world. The aforementioned opening is a great metaphor for the Safdies’ skill at bringing dissonant elements together in a kind of haywire harmony. Uncut Gems isn’t so much a mess but a maelstrom, a swirling cyclone of lashing rain and lightning bolts with Howard at the eye of the storm. He bounces erratically from auctions to his high-rise home, from blacklight concerts to Passover celebrations, worming his way through the NYC of 2012. Technically, this makes Uncut Gems a period piece. Although set only a few years ago, the imagery and atmosphere harbor the grittier, grainier texture of a vintage Big Apple; it’s not hard to imagine Howard Ratner running into Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, fittingly, is credited as an executive producer).
But for all the retro stylings of Uncut Gems, it was made with the most cutting edge of techniques. Cinematographer Darius Khondji remarked that the Safdies “made me shoot in ways I have never done before,” with 360-degree lighting and long-lens follow-focusing as part of the technical highwire act. The movie was shot on both digital and film, with the two formats matched for color and grain in post. The seamless blend of the two is a testament to the attention to detail. Daniel Lopatin’s score, too, is an ecstatic blend of nostalgia and contemporary twists that’s hard to define in simple terms; “baroque electronica” comes close, but hardly digs into the emotional highs and anxiety-inducing ability of the soundtrack.
I’d be remiss not to mention Sandler’s brilliance in the role of Howard. He’s brilliant as the annoying gambler, embodying the kind of guy you’d hate to know in real life but love to watch on screen. If there was anyone who still doubted his acting chops after Punch-Drunk Love and The Meyerowitz Stories, his turn as Ratner ought to show them his dramatic versatility; he seems to move with an overconfident gait one moment, gold chains and leather jacket swinging with his steps, and like a rat fleeing poison the next. So is all of this entertaining? That’s a question only you can answer. But know that Uncut Gems is not a film engineered for you to like. In an age of audience testing, demanding fans, and studio interference, it’s worth taking the risky plunge into the rapids.
Art by Art Editor, Adam Dee.