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Uncut Gems’ maelstrom of manic desperation and reckless extravagance

A24’s supercharged thriller opens in Madison this Christmas Eve with screenings at the AMC 6

Uncut Gems, the dazzling, multifaceted existential crime thriller from Josh and Benny Safdie, finds the filmmaking brothers at the top of their game, following Heaven Knows What (2014), a devastating portrait of heroin addiction, and their propulsive neo-noir Good Time (2017). A movie 10 years in the making that was inspired by their father’s stories of working in Manhattan’s Diamond District, Uncut Gems takes us on a gritty, frenetic journey from the Welo opal mines in northern Ethiopia to the sordid underbelly of New York City and beyond. Offering an exceptionally brilliant and revelatory performance, Adam Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a fast-talking Jewish jeweler and compulsive gambler who teeters on the edge of the abyss as he makes one terrible decision after another.

In the role of Ratner, Sandler has truly outdone himself. Previously, in Paul Thomas Anderson’s avant-garde romantic comedy Punch-Drunk Love (2002), Sandler portrayed a lonely, beleaguered and socially inept novelty-toilet-plunger salesman who was prone to sporadic, violent outbursts of rage. Anderson’s film cleverly subverted the schlock actor’s typical on-screen persona and showed Sandler in a new light, while allowing him to reveal unexpected depths and tones as an artist. (As a testament to his performance as Ratner, Daniel Day-Lewis, arguably one of the greatest actors of all time, personally phoned Sandler to congratulate him.) 

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Always on the go, Howard spends his time selling bling to rappers and star athletes out of his ramshackle jewelry shop, neglecting his wife (Idina Menzel) and family to have an affair with his much younger employee (Julia Fox), attending his daughter’s bizarre school play, dodging hired thugs who follow him everywhere, and attempting to pay off his enormous debts to exasperated racketeers by placing increasingly risky bets. His latest scheme involves procuring a precious black opal surreptitiously extracted from a cave in Ethiopia and smuggled into the United States, which he plans to auction at an inflated price. However, things become complicated when he shows it to Boston Celtics forward Kevin Garnett (playing himself), who, entranced by the rock, asks to borrow it as a good-luck charm for his upcoming game. Howard reluctantly agrees and secures Garnett’s championship ring as collateral, then swiftly pawns it to bet big on the game. 

Set in the spring of 2012 and unfolding over the course of a week, Uncut Gems plunges the viewer into the maelstrom of manic desperation and reckless extravagance that is Howard’s life. As his house of cards inevitably begins to collapse, he actually becomes more confident in his relentless pursuit of the ultimate win. Accelerated by the ecstasy of self-destruction, Howard seems to thrive on the glittering instability of this decadent, materialistic world, while becoming increasingly dissociated from reality. With its constant camera movement, overlapping dialogue, and kinetic, rhythmic editing, Uncut Gems induces a sense of disorientation as it delivers a rapid succession of gripping, supercharged scenes, jumping from tragic drama to absurd comedy and terrifying suspense. The seamless action interweaves real-world sporting events and real-life characters (including Abel Makkonen Tesfaye, better known by his stage name The Weeknd) with glimpses into the high-pressure gemstone business, the social codes and religious rituals of urban Jewish New Yorkers, and the violent ups and downs of a spiraling gambling addiction.

Veteran cinematographer Darius Khondji, who shot the film in glorious 35mm, says in an interview with Deadline that the look of the high-contrast film was inspired by postmodernist architecture, the work of Robert Altman (especially The Long Goodbye) and the gaudy taste of the young and wealthy in 1980s New York. The atmospheric score by composer Daniel Lopatin (aka Oneohtrix Point Never), a warped blend of retro-futuristic electronic music and glistening operatic kitsch, often does not align emotionally with the events on screen, thus accentuating the strange magic of the Safdie brothers’ film. Amidst the nerve-jangling barrage of movement and noise, a mystical streak runs through Uncut Gems. In the hypnotic opening sequence, the camera dives directly into the beauty of the black opal, as though it were a portal to another dimension à la the Star Gate of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The shot suddenly transforms into the interior of Howard’s colon as he endures a colonoscopy, visualizing his deep desire to possess otherworldly power. 

At once a vibrant character study, an exhilarating roller-coaster ride, a clear-eyed appraisal of the harsh realities and irreconcilable contradictions of late stage capitalism, and a visionary, one-of-a-kind cinematic achievement, Uncut Gems creates an immersive environment that feels less like a movie than a virtual reality simulation of Howard’s experiences. While he may be a contemptible character indeed, the Safdie brothers find something poignantly human in the vain hopes and grandiose ambitions of their flawed, indefatigable antihero, leaving us no choice but to root for him. With its full-throttle visual style, rich, lifelike textures and exquisite sensory detail, Uncut Gems has a great addictive potential due to its ability to produce a sense of pure elation.

*The film is also playing at Marcus Point Cinemas.

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