The Safdie Brothers are a duo whose names do not ring out as loudly as they should. They’ve steadily built a reputation among the indie film scene slowly over the past decade. With minor critical darlings such as “Heaven Knows What” and “Good Time,” starring Robert Pattinson in one of the many roles he’s taken to redeem himself of the stigma of the “Twilight” films, and now the Safdies have released a project with enough star power and studio backing to break into the mainstream.
“Uncut Gems”—their only film to date to have enough advertising to gain an audience outside diehard film buffs—follows Howard Ratner, a skeevy high-end jeweler living in New York’s prestigious Diamond District in 2012. Ratner, despite ostensibly being a legitimate businessman and catering to high-profile clientele, finds himself embroiled in the seedy underworld of the Big Apple due to his compulsive addiction to high-stakes gambling—usually betting money he’s borrowed from one person to pay off another to win even more money, or even pawning the collateral his customers give him at the jewelry store to temporarily score money to gamble with or pay back loan sharks.
With his various debts kept in a precarious balance, his life is constantly on the cusp of collapsing uncontrollably. He winds up finding himself the unfortunate center of a complex scheme of his own making involving Kevin Garnett of the Boston Celtics, a couple of particularly nasty loan sharks, his mistress, a pawn shop, a rare gem and an auction house.
One of the film’s greatest feats is in simply making uptown New York a character in its own right, similar to “The Wire”’s characterization of Baltimore. There’s an authenticity to it, showcasing the city’s beauty with its more repugnant qualities, and while it is a heavily stylized and warped viewpoint from which viewers experience the city—again, not unlike Travis Bickle’s viewpoint from “Taxi Driver,” or even Patrick Bateman’s POV in “American Psycho.” It’s clear the Safdies love New York and its people and culture, featuring numerous cameos from local NYC legends and major stars who got their start there—most notably, The Weeknd.
Speaking of our viewpoint character, Adam Sandler carries this film in a manner that makes one question why he does not dabble in dramatic acting more often. Like Jim Carrey, Andrew Dice Clay and Robin Williams, Sandler here taps into something more deep and vulnerable than anything his more famous, comical roles ever offered him.
Howard, as a character, is deeply unpleasant. He’s tacky, lascivious, impulsive and compulsive, arrogant, delusional, selfish and pathetic. Yet, Sandler brings his natural charm and likability to him, resulting in a deeply empathetic, yet cautionary portrait of a damaged man—possibly why he was Quentin Tarantino’s first pick for Donny Donowitz/”The Bear Jew” in “Inglorious Basterds.” Like the best works of filmmakers and writers like Scorsese and Charlie Kaufman or actors like Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio, the Safdies and Sandler make this man both distasteful and reckless, yet invite us to see ourselves in him. Sandler conjures up anger, resentment, insecurity and pain in this pent-up, agitated little man that is Howard, and it is for this reason an audience can still feel some fleeting affinity for him.
And like the greats listed above, the narrative makes Howard an active participant in the narrative. Unlike other films this past year—like “Joker”—that allow their characters to become unfortunate, goalless victims of circumstances that lead to their lives spiraling, “Uncut Gems”—like “Taxi Driver,” “Being John Malkovich” or “Falling Down”—does not grant its lead this undue sympathy.
Howard is a bad person, not necessarily because of his goals—he’s just aspirational—or his personality—he seems to be an okay guy to hang out with—but because of his actions, what he does to achieve these goals. He carves his own path through the movie and, ironically for a gambler, simply doesn’t know when to fold ‘em. He’s more of a tragic antihero than a truly despicable person, and it’s this moral qualm that makes the movie so great. As a viewer, one is asked whether they should like or not like Howard. Root for his success or indulge in the schadenfreude of his downfall?
Idina Menzel, in a rare live-action film appearance, is terrific as Howard’s estranged wife, bringing a perfectly annoyed and bitter energy to offset Howard’s seemingly unending, delusional optimism. Eric Bogosian brings a pronounced menace, yet quiet nervousness to his turn as Arno, the loan shark Howard owes the most money. Lakeith Stanfield, of “Get Out” and “Atlanta” fame with a recent turn in “Knives Out” under his belt, has a smaller role in the film, but one which feels incredibly naturalistic—being one of Howard’s employees who provides a realistic, grounded counter to the more grandiose and cartoonish Howard. Kevin Garnett is surprisingly comfortable on screen, and though that seems unsurprising as he’s playing himself, it’s still a role that requires him to parody himself to an extent, and that’s no easy feat for anyone, let alone an unprofessional actor.
The two stand-outs among the supporting cast by far are Julia Fox and Keith Williams Richards, neither of whom had acted in a film before. Richards had never acted before period and was picked out by agents on the street. Fox plays a character named Julia as well, Howard’s assistant and girlfriend. Fox brings a lot of charm and intelligence to what could’ve been a simple love interest, and her character is integral in exposing Howard’s more human side, even though their relationship is rather toxic and bewildering. Fox also provides some of the funnier moments in a film full of dry, dark humor, and her memorable first outing as an actress will definitely lead to bigger things down the road.
Richards seems to be overlooked in comparison to Sandler and Fox, and while it’s understandable considering he is a supporting antagonist and not the main focus, this does not seem just. Richards, as the enforcer Phil, is one of the more memorable parts of the film. His focused, predatory gaze and intensely pointed body language make his character a physical standout among the more erratic and frantic characters. This simple use of acting with his body makes Richards seem more cold and restricted than the other characters, and so his sudden outbursts of violent anger seem so much more terrifying. He’s like the film’s overall aesthetic embodied in one man—barely controlled chaos and rage bottled up, waiting to be unleashed at the drop of a hat. His low amount of screentime and lack of meaningful development don’t undermine the character, but strengthen him.
Phil could easily become one of the best “enforcer/brute” characters ever put in a crime drama, simply because the viewer doesn’t know anything about him but what is shown. He’s like a shark or a crocodile, he can’t be understood and related to, so all that’s left is an intense and intimidating presence and the constant threat of violence coated by an equally unstable demeanor.
This feeling of anxiety and fear is not relegated to the character of Phil, but rather Phil merely enhances this anxious and panicked energy that exists within every facet of the film. The Safdies’ unique style results in a supremely off-putting viewing experience, which channels the darkest work of the Coen Brothers or even the early works of Martin Scorsese, without feeling like a rip-off or direct homage, but rather that the Safdies are taking these elements of earlier masters and spinning them into something entirely fresh and new. The film’s cinematography and shooting style heightens this sense of claustrophobia and anxiety, even while it takes place in one of the most sprawling cities in the world.
Every location is purposeful. Howard’s Diamond District storefront—the main source of the action and conflict—is like a prison with garishly colored walls, an uncomfortably tight entrance vestibule. Within the film, this allows customers to be buzzed in and out to prevent theft, but the Safdies also use this convenient excuse to amplify the sense of restlessness.
The camerawork within these locations makes the viewer feel like a caged animal. Every close-up is tight, discomforting, often frantically tremoring. The grainy, low-grade aesthetic of the film, coupled with this claustrophobic camerawork, transforms the high-end Manhattan into a grimy, revolting and frightening place. These extreme close-ups coupled with the deeply saturated colors and purposefully ugly aesthetic, with some notable use of high contrast in the lighting, brings out the minor imperfections of each actor’s appearance, almost transforming everyday people into gruesome caricatures, constantly soaked in neon filtering or bathed in shadows—cementing the sleazy, grimy vibe of the film.
The biggest cinematic technique employed in this attempt to raise the audience’s blood pressure is the sound design. Every noise in this film is calculated and precise, though they are presented in a way which feels anarchic and overwhelming. Any time Howard is in his shop, usually at the brink of his various schemes crashing in on each other, the sounds are coming from everywhere at once, almost rhythmically but not pleasantly so: people shouting over each other incomprehensibly, talking too fast to really have a conversation, phones ringing, the doorbell buzzing, banging on the glass in the vestibule, jewelry clinking, etc. Couple all that with the frenzied camerawork and tight framing and sickly color grading, and the tense encounters at various points in the film are cranked up to a nauseating level of agitation. And outside the shop, any time there is a moment to breathe, the Safdies have accustomed viewers so much to the organized chaos that these breathers feel more stressful than anything.
The cinematic technique of the long, unending quiet is almost always a cue for an audience to prepare for a sudden burst of noise or action. Yet the Safdies often keep these moments dragging on for long past the point of curiosity or bracing into genuine unease. They have orchestrated the film to use an audience’s knowledge of these cinematic tropes against them, and to actually crave the more emotionally intense scenes in order to break this uncomfortable, silent tension. There is no break from the dread, whether it’s the loud, in-your-face sort of panic or the slow build-up to it. That’s something most thrillers or even horror films fail to achieve, and yet the Safdies here have provided perhaps the ultimate rubric for creating this sensation.
The score for the film, by previous Safdie collaborator Daniel Lopatin, is haunting and beautiful, comprised of the low drones, eerie timbres and spacey melodies only the electronic genre can provide—leaving the film with a strange, dreamlike atmosphere not unlike “Drive.” The score gives the film the vibe of a twisted morality tale or fantasy story, despite it being heavily grounded in the grit and grime of New York’s criminal underworld.
This blending of the otherworldly and the brutally raw and real is what makes the Safdies so intriguing as artists, and what may allow them to join the ranks of the Coens and Nicholas Winding Refn as unique auteurs with a style that is both appealing and jolting to the mainstream public.
“Uncut Gems” is possibly the best way for the Safdies to showcase their incredible talent to the mainstream public, and if the Oscars buzz is anything to go by, they may finally get their due from the Academy.
Sandler gives a mesmerizing performance as Howard Ratner, probably the greatest performance of his career, which, believe it or not, is littered with other great roles in films like “Funny People” and “Punch-Drunk Love.” The soundscape and cinematography compliments the rabid pace, increasingly complicated plot and suffocating atmosphere perfectly.
A towering achievement of both the crime genre and of technical prowess, “Uncut Gems” has all the making of a cult classic and here’s to hoping the Safdies—and Sandler—continue in this direction for a long time to come.
Matt Cotter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @NevadaSagebrush.