Sleazy, well-connected New York jeweller Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) comes into a rare black opal that may be his ticket to a major financial windfall. While flogging the jewel, Ratner tries to balance his high-stakes gambling habit, appease debt collectors, and keep his family life together.
Since Uncut Gems co-directors and writers Josh and Benny Safdie released their breakthrough 2014 film Heaven Knows What, critics and fans have expected a uniquely New York-styled chaos from their work. This manic energy was central to the suspense achieved in the Safdies’ 2017 follow-up, Good Time. It’s also reminiscent of how New York was depicted in the 1970s through films like Taxi Driver as a swell of immoral hustling. But even this expectation for chaos couldn’t have prepared viewers for the 135-minute panic attack that is Uncut Gems.
The Safdies weaponise sound in a way few other films dare. While most directors strip away ambient noise where possible, the brothers add more. Background conversations, footsteps, and traffic add to a din that swells alongside the sparse score. The cacophony assaults the senses, builds tension, and fuels panic at every twist and turn of the plot. It’s masterful yet awful, a world-building experiment that, on the balance, adds more to the film than the snatches of dialogue we lose to the hubbub. New York, particularly the vibrant Diamond District, is also richly textured in the film. The Safdies’ camera tracking keeps us up to pace with Ratner’s hustle, leaving us breathless at Uncut Gems’ visceral energy.
This is undoubtedly aided by the Safdie Brothers’ frantic plot. Written with regular collaborator Ronald Bronstein, the narrative is a true high wire balancing act. Trying to build Ratner’s character and develop his relationships while continually raising the emotional stakes is a trick the trio don’t manage consistently. The screenplay opens various plot lines only to dash right past any conclusions in its efforts to maintain a frenetic pace, leaving Ratner’s character arc and the motives of other characters unfulfilled. The script, however, does offer thought-provoking musings on addiction, showing gambling to be an incurable even when life-threatening. This helps to raise tension without resorting to melodrama.
With over 75 acting credits, Adam Sandler is one of Hollywood’s most prolific names – and its most divisive. Much of the build up to Uncut Gems was centred on whether the film would be his best performance, or same old, same old. Like him or not, Sandler runs the show in a physically and emotionally demanding role. The Safdies said to the press that they had wanted Sandler since day one – such was his boisterous performance that it’s hard to imagine anyone else succeeding. The rest of the cast, unfortunately, is nothing to write home about. Part of this is middling performances, while the script doesn’t allow for developing key supporting characters. Julia Fox (as Ratner’s girlfriend Julia) is one such victim, with insufficient screen time to build momentum from her star scenes.
Uncut Gems heaves with insane, high-strung drama – but it ultimately fails to really capture a purposeful moment of character in all of the sound and fury. With the noise dialled back and further development of unexplored plot points, the Safdies’ latest film could have been so much more.
Uncut Gems will no doubt make a lot of noise for awards season – some of it is triumphant, some is just yelling. 6.5/10. Check the film out on Netflix now!