Directors: Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie
Writers: Ronald Bronstein, Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie
Starring: Adam Sandler, Lakeith Stanfield, Julia Fox
New York jeweller Howard Ratner (Sandler) makes a high stakes bet that could lead to the windfall of a lifetime. However, in doing he must balance business, family and adversaries on all sides, and his relentless pursuit of the ultimate win may ultimately bring him his downfall.
I think we can all agree that Adam Sandler has given us some of the worst films of the last couple of decades, but he does (very) occasionally prove to everyone that he does know how to act by turning up in genuinely good films. He is often the boss on a lot of his films, and it tends to be the films where he isn’t that he delivers a great performance in a great film (such as Punch-Drunk Love). This proves that Sandler does actually know the difference between a good and a bad film, and so this fact actually makes the really bad ‘comedies’ that he makes even more sickening and reprehensible, and may well say something about his attitude towards film fans – but that is a discussion for another day……
The Saftie Brothers gave us frantic cinematic intensity in the Robert Pattinson-starring Good Time but have managed to up the ante even more in Uncut Gems, and in doing so have taken full advantage of Adam Sandler’s naturally manic creepiness. Uncut Gems is certainly not an easy film to watch, and is often genuinely unpleasant, but there is no denying that it is extremely compelling from start to finish. From the very off we are given claustrophobic interior scenes of crowded rooms filled with various people shouting over each other as the narrative grabs the viewer tightly by the scruff of the neck and refuses to let go.
The dialogue is not only suitably naturalistic, but also as appropriately unpleasant as many of the film’s main characters that say it – often with a raised voice at each other. The most unlikeable character of them all is our protagonist; Howard is not only a deeply unpleasant character with no redeeming features, but is also the victim of his own bad decisions, as his addiction to gambling and inability to quit while he is ahead is what brings down his gradual downfall. Though the deeply misguided and blatantly irrational decisions that Howard makes do often make for extremely frustrating viewing, thanks to Sandler’s performance and the Safdie brothers uncompromising direction, they are believable and convincing, and we cannot help but be compelled by the outcome, even if we ultimately do not like our protagonist.
I have always been a firm believer that protagonists do not have to necessarily have any likeable traits to be compelling and genuinely hold the viewer’s attention, and Uncut Gems is perfect proof of that. The film unapologetically throws the viewer headfirst into Howard’s horrible, nasty and unforgiving world, and just like Howard, thanks to the performances, script and camerawork we are also unable to escape it. Even though Howard could potentially escape if he stops succumbing to his self-destructive tendencies and decision making, we feel so much a part of Howard’s world that some of the narrative developments in Uncut Gems produce unbearable tension, but just like Howard, we have some kind of involuntary perverse addiction to wanting to know the outcome. Howard may be an absolutely despicable character, but the very fundamental nature of his flaws is actually very relatable, even if his actions are naturally quite extreme. However, the most important thing is that his actions do always feel justified and in keeping with his personality.
Of course, to have a film with such a protagonist that is equally despicable and compelling does require a great performance, and Adam Sandler produces the goods. His fully committed performance is one of extreme manic intensity, and the directors make sure to utilise his skill set, as the fact is that his performance is not actually a million miles from the performance he gives in a lot of his ‘comedies’. However, in Uncut Gems he is obviously pushed that bit more than usual (well, actually pushed) and gives one of the standout performances of the last 12 months, and for me deserves to win the Oscar more than Joaquin Phoenix. It is a fully committed, unflinching, raw and completely authentic performance which successfully encapsulates of all his character’s destructive personality traits and makes them genuinely believable, and though we may sincerely dislike him, we cannot help but be completely compelled by him and get sucked into his horrible life.
Uncut Gems is also a technically brilliant film; The Safdie Brothers direction and camerawork is intentionally challenging, with many scenes being a complete cacophony of chaos which perfectly encapsulate Howard’s world. The cinematography is also stunning, and Daniel Lopatin’s almost synth-based, Vangelis inspired soundtrack adds yet another element that is both disconcerting but also somehow complements the film.
Uncut Gems is certainly not a film for everyone, as its highly unconventional approach and incredible leading performance that produces an intentionally suffocating, unforgiving and often infuriating viewing experience of relentless intensity does certainly not make for an enjoyable film. However, for those willing to go with it will be rewarded by a cinematic marvel of a film that grips the viewer so tightly that it almost hurts, all the way up until its unforgettable conclusion.
Brutally intense film making of the highest order; Uncut Gems is an intentionally difficult film to watch, but thanks to an incredible performance from Adam Sandler (I never thought I would put those words in the same sentence) and stunning direction, it is one of the most horribly compelling and unforgettable cinematic experiences of recent years.