“Uncut Gems” cuts like a knife

Latest Safdie brothers film offers viewers an anxious, stressful experience-in the best way possible

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Adam Sandler walks the streets of New York in the Safdie brothers’ latest frenzied masterpiece, “Uncut Gems.”

Jerome Dixon, Writer

“Uncut Gems” has stood as a quite divisive film this year. While garnering loads of critical praise at many of 2019s big film festivals, it didn’t seem to strike as much of a chord with audiences or awards voters. It’s currently ranked as the 23rd best film of the year by critics on Rotten Tomatoes, but only holds an audience score of 52%. Along with that, it received absolutely no awards love from the big awards shows this year. It’s safe to say there’s quite a large range of opinions towards this film. With all that being said, “Uncut Gems” is probably my favorite film of the year.

The story follows Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a charismatic, but greedy, gambling addicted, and ultimately morally bankrupt jeweler living and operating in New York City. After acquiring a rare African gem, he begins to spiral deeper into poor choices and dangerous underhand gambling.

The story is literally centered around the gem, but it’s figuratively centered around Howard. The film is ultimately a character study of a man too far gone, and too stupid and consumed by addiction to save himself. With a character so complex and thoroughly explored there needs to be an excellent and versatile performance to match it, and Adam Sandler’s transition from lighthearted comedies to a grimy crime thriller feels completely seamless. Howard almost feels like he was written with Sandler in mind. It’s a character that does a great job at playing into Sandler’s strengths. In a way, it calls to mind Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch Drunk Love,” taking a character that might not have been out of place in a Sandler comedy, but putting the archetype into a more realistic and dramatic context.

That’s not to say this isn’t a comedy, however. The film is a master of navigating tone. It’s consistently dark, but it shifts seamlessly from comedy to drama to thriller. In lesser hands these shifts in tone might seem abrupt and out of place, but the Safdie’s masterfully balance these different tones while still having the mood of the film feel consistent.

Despite these changes in tone, the film always feels intense, but not in the way of adrenaline-fused action like some other thrillers. This film feels like an anxiety induced nightmare, and it’s shot and edited to specifically amplify these feelings. The sound design and mixing is so impeccably done. The mix feels loud and cluttered, like multiple people are shouting at you at once. Dialogue is barely discernible at points, but it only functions to aid this anxious feeling.

The film utilizes the film grain and intense close-ups of previous Safdie films “Good Time” and “Heaven Knows What,” but the editing is much more hectic and cluttered this time around. Long shots are few and far between, as the film strives to overload the senses with quick cuts and cluttered compositions, at points barely giving your mind the time to discern what exactly is going on in the frame. In other films, these choices might come off as amateurish and incompetent, but in this film they’re brilliant artistic choices, completely immersing you into Howard’s mind and lifestyle. It felt like the film completely took me in and aggressively spit me back out. I left the theater tired and confused, but in the best way possible.

With a film this well crafted, this can’t be the Safdie’s first rodeo. Josh and Benny Safdie have been climbing up the ranks for quite a long time. First making significant underground noise in 2009 with the Mumblecore classic “Daddy Longlegs,” they’ve only continued to evolve and improve in their craft as time has progressed. With their next feature, they began to stray away from their Mumblecore roots with “Heaven Knows What,” a harrowing depiction of homelessness and the struggles of drug addiction. They toned down the DIY style of their previous film in favor of a style that feels more professional, but is equally unconventional and stylistically distinct. “Heaven Knows What” utilized intense close ups, excess film grain and noise, and a handheld camera in order to match the grimy tone of the subject matter.

This style was later honed with their next, and previously most popular feature, “Good Time,” a film that signified that they were on the cusp of some shining, watershed moment. Gone were the mumblecore-isms and low budgets of their previous work. Their larger budget allowed them to explore a more complex, larger story, bring on big name actors, and have a more professional presentation. Despite the increase in notoriety and distribution, the Safdies refused to pare down their unique style. Despite the increase in budget and screens, they didn’t care whether mainstream audiences were satisfied with their work. Despite success, they still strive to remain challenging and stay true to themselves, something that is quite unique in mainstream filmmaking. 

Now, with a 20 million dollar budget, access to big names such as Adam Sandler, Kevin Garnett, Lakieth Stanfield, and The Weeknd, and a story that explores a variety of characters and locations, “Uncut Gems” might be their largest film yet, both in scope and in mainstream exposure. It’s also one of their most expertly crafted and uncompromising.

The score makes sure to plays into their uncompromising style as well. Oneohtrix Point Never’s retro, almost relaxing score for the film completely contrasts the anxiety inducing intensity of the story. It doesn’t look like it would work on paper, but it somehow stands as one of the best scores of 2019. It’s complexly composed, sometimes breathtakingly gorgeous, and undebatably unique. It helps to make the film stand out when compared to other crime thrillers. Loud strings and hard hitting drums are replaced with serene synths and drum machines. It’s a score that can work both inside and outside the context of the film, like most of the best film scores should.

Adam Sandler will (rightfully) be at the center of most of the conversation on the acting of the film, but most of the performances here are quite strong. Lakeith Stanfield and Idina Menzel give predictably great performances, but newcomers like Kevin Garnett and Julia Fox give surprisingly great performances. Kevin in particular has a very meaty roll and he mostly does a fantastic job, even though he is merely playing himself.

Everything here is impeccably done. I can’t think of any real flaws with the film. The writing, the acting, the direction, the cinematography, editing, the score, the sound. This is probably a film that I wouldn’t hesitate to call flawless. Don’t expect something conventional or normal with this. It’s a film that is incredibly uncompromising in it’s presentation and writing, but it’s all the more unique and fresh because of it. This feels like the Safdie’s masterpiece, but I really hope to be proven wrong with the their next work. 

 

Final Score: 10/10