Directed By The Safdie Brothers
Starring – Adam Sandler, Julia Fox, Lakeith Stanfield
The Plot – From acclaimed filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie comes an electrifying crime thriller about Howard Ratner (Sandler), a charismatic New York City jeweler always on the lookout for the next big score. When he makes a series of high-stakes bets that could lead to the windfall of a lifetime, Howard must perform a precarious high-wire act, balancing business, family, and encroaching adversaries on all sides, in his relentless pursuit of the ultimate win.
Rated R for pervasive strong adult language, violence, some sexual content and brief drug use
– Hypnotic aesthetic. Being that this is a Safdie Brothers flick above all else, the familiarity in style, which has conjured up some of the most lucidly transfixing films of the decade, polishes the diamond that is “Uncut Gems”. Combining tight-knit shot compositions with a grainy style in cinematography, the Safdie’s ability to emit anxiety within the atmosphere adds a suffocating level of chemical imbalance to the film, and makes karma and consequences virtually unavoidable with how compact everything in frame feels. In addition to this, the alluring neon dependency that the brothers use to amplify intensity, helps to flesh out one of the more gritty, grainy environments put to film since Spike Lee started sacrificing style to gain substance. It makes for one surreal presentation with no shortage of artistic flare that practically reaches out and touches the audience.
– Synth-heavy score. Another expectation within the world of all things Safdie is another collaboration with heralded musical composer Daniel Lopatin to orchestrate another hypnotically subversive series of tracks that elevate the urgency that the screenplay has no problems continuously juggling. This is easily one of my top five favorite complete scores from 2019, if only for the way the experimentation between Jewish hymns in chanting, and synth electronics help to usher in something so fresh and seductively beautiful. My single favorite track is definitely ‘School Play’, six minutes and sixteen seconds of audible trance that plagues your ears like a masked assassin who feels seconds away from physical confrontation. This one, and many others are riveting to listen to in the dark, and what’s most important is even within using the same dominating instruments that made “Good Time” the single best score of 2017, they sound nothing similar in terms of the repetition in tones they weigh so heavily in between scene-to-scene.
– Culturally profound. When I first started “Uncut Gems”, I thought that the movie was mislabeled, because we start in an Ethiopian village, where miners are sacrificing life and limb to maintain a jewel that is unlike anything ever seen to human eyes. Where it fits in the film soon becomes evident, as American greed plays such a heavy-handed consistency in the actions of the movie’s characters, and brings forth a mirror of conscience that conveys something deeper taking place beneath the conventional themes of the script. As usual, the Safdie’s are burning a wick of social awareness meant to shame us for the things that made America the polarizing figure that it is today, and do so without it ever compromising or straining the fluidity in progression throughout the film. Every poignant instance plays cohesively with what transpires in the foreground of the scene, all the while plugging in a lamp of illumination to raise awareness.
– Shades of grey. What I’ve always loved about the characters within the Safdie’s filmography is the lack of good or bad people, and instead an overwhelming population of middle ground that proves the clarity of ideals isn’t always as obvious as one thinks. In regards to Howard, we meet and understand a man with honorable intentions when it comes to giving his family the best a man can offer, but it’s his movements to get there that allow his mental outlook to become convoluted. This is fascinating to me because his mistakes are easily identifiable as human, even as far-fetched as they feel to get himself back to his comfort zone. The mistakes pile up like bricks on a Tetris board, and take an idea within Howard’s mind that seemed easy enough in planning, yet corrupted to the core in execution. It’s very rare that I don’t like or hate a central protagonist, but rather just feel shame and sorrow for him, and soon you start to realize that a movie this psychological doesn’t require an antagonist for Howard’s plight, because his greatest adversity lies within himself.
– Sandler’s best. It took 17 years for Adam Sandler to reach the very potential that he mastered in “Punch Drunk Love”, as a manic depressive, whose only desire was the love that made him complete. His turn as Howard is a three-hundred degree turn, however, as we come to understand a man rendered paralyzed by his compulsion to gamble and risk everything for bigger prizes. Sandler’s vulnerability here is top notch, but beyond that it’s the way his consistency in accent better helps transform him before our very eyes. Not in the way that makes him visually different from the visual familiarity of Sandler, but rather his complete immersion into the character, which tests him mentally and physically further than any other role to date has for the cherished comedian. Aside from Sandler, there are also scene-stealing turns from Stanfield, Fox, and even a clever way that one celebrity moves into frame, which will get you ready for the inevitable “Coming To America” sequel that is months away.
– Perfect setting. “Good Time” showcased the corruption and manipulation of the New York streets seen through the eyes of one of its biggest criminals, and while the same city remains as prominent as ever in “Uncut Gems”, its conflict takes place on a much bigger scale, this time in the ins-and-outs of a high-rise business that is the front for a business owner taking advantage of his clients. This not only keeps this film from repeating some of the same storytelling beats that its predecessor did, but also proves that there are many sides to the big apple that require an urgent approach while the poison from within keeps burning airborne. On top of all of this, it’s a time-period piece that is set in 2012, and made all the more evident with select props and images that cement its place without feeling heavy-handed. The Iphone 4S is seen periodically throughout the film, which will serve as a laughable reminder for how far unimportant things have evolved, but beyond that competently articulates the production’s budget feeling effective without going overboard. Sports fans will also comprehend its place in time with images and replays of a familiar NBA Playoff series, which was one of the more prominent stories in sports for its time.
– Complex tone. What I love about the Safdie’s as screenwriters is they can take corny or meandering humor, and flesh it out in a way where it feels honest and necessary to include, regardless of this being a cut-throat drama that even rivals a horror movie at times. This makes Sandler’s casting certainly no mistake, but rather a blessing for how Adam can balance the depths of severity with a pallet-cleansing levity of humor, that keeps the film from being a series of downtrodden sluggishness. This not only gives the film extreme replay value, but also crafts a series of memorable one-liners that cast back the hands of time, and allow us to view its colorful lead through the dimensions of his prime once more. The movie, nor the seriousness in tone are ever sacrificed, proving that a movie can be enjoyable and scare the hell out of you at any time, with unnerving realism.
– Best kept secrets. The trailers for the film, as well as the overall promotional material are so tightly-knitted and put together, for how little was actually given away in its free material. On the real, this film’s conflict and structural narrative gives way to many elements beating together at once, leading to no shortage of surprises not only for Howard’s character, but also for us the audience, who might see certain acts coming from a mile away, but the severity of such is what’s never expected. For me, it brought forth one of the most shockingly satisfying endings, which I feel might stray some people away from their final grade of the picture, but one that I personally feel supplanted the perfect emphasis for the kind of people who rode like thunder and crashed like lightning. Truly captivating to the last frame.
– Earned run time. An over two hour film from the Safdie’s did kind of worry me, considering their previous two directed films never crossed the 100 minute mark. However, the rhytmic impulse of the editing scheme, combined with fluidity of between scene transitions, makes “Uncut Gems” one of those films where even over two hours never felt enough. The pacing is exceptionally consistent for the film, mainly because each scene plays something pivotal in the progression of the film, leaving absolutely no dead weight scenes that I would shorten or all together delete because of such. I’m curious to see if this consistency lessens or decays with future re-watches, because I already know what transpires, but as it stands right now, this is one of the easiest two hour watches that I have endured in quite some time, and that’s a testament to the screenwriting, considering this film is a completely assaulting experience that never relents on its anxiousness spell over the audience.
– Boisterous sound design. I understand the point of stitching multiple characters lines of dialogue together being something that authentically duplicates New-Yorkers speech patterns, but that didn’t make it pleasurable to me soaking in much of the exposition between them. Certain scenes took rewinds because I didn’t fully comprehend them, mainly because there are as many as four characters voicing dialogue at the same time during multiple times throughout the film. On top of this, the volume itself being two notches too high, to fully immerse us within the texture of such a geographical flavor gives me more of an argument for why I’ve stayed away from the biggest little city in the world. It stood out as the long critique or annoyance for the film, and reminds us that sometimes complete immersion doesn’t require everything about the experience to make it intoxicating.
My Grade: 9/10 or A