Grackles review Uncut Gems

Directed by Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie 

Reviewed by Scott Ray and Charlie Riccardelli 

Josh and Benny Safdie (better known as the Safdie Brothers), a directorial/writing duo from New York City, are filmmakers of place and of atmosphere. Uncut Gems is technically their sixth feature film, but most filmgoers will know them from their breakthrough 2017 crime thriller Good Time, starring Robert Pattinson. Good Time, a frenetic, anxiety inducing journey through the late-night Queens underworld of botched bank robbery and prison breaks is a good precursor to Uncut Gems, both visually and thematically. In both films the Safdie Brothers show their dedication to filming on location and utilizing first time actors it sometimes seems they found out on the streets of New York during the shoot.

Uncut Gems follows Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a jeweler and gambling addict with a shop in New York City’s famed Diamond District, whose gambling debts and ethically dubious business decisions are coming to a head as the film begins. When his brother-in-law loanshark Arno (Eric Bogosian) pressures Howard to repay his debts, Howard goes on a whirlwind last ditch spree, gambling his livelihood, his familial, extramarital, and professional relationships, and his life, in a scheme involving a rare uncut opal and a Celtics run in the NBA finals.

Scott Ray: Charlie, it’s been a long time since I’ve had this kind of a response from a film. In the last half hour of the movie I could feel my heart beating in my chest. I thought I was going to have a panic attack in the theatre during one particularly tense scene. I wasn’t just emotionally connecting with the film—I was having an actual physical reaction. I think the last time I felt like this might be when I watched Requiem for a Dream when I was a teenager. The main difference here is I actually want to see Uncut Gems again. This is nothing new for the Safdie Brothers, who in interviews say this is the film they’ve been working up towards making for ten years. The incessant electronic music, the kaleidoscopic color schemes, the intensity of the New York scenery all jack up the tension, but it’s more than these variables. The camera roams around the scenes unfettered. Oftentimes there’s no cross coverage—you’re not seeing both sides of the conversation and the characters are constantly shouting over each other adding to the unending tension. Further, the film is essentially an indefinite parlay for Howard—even when one aspect of his schemes payoff he has to win in an increasingly unlikely scenario further down the line. In this way I was reminded of the films A Simple Plan and Very Bad Things, films where things start bad and just continue to get worse.

Charlie Riccardelli: It’s funny that you mention Very Bad Things as I was just watching that for the first time. Uncut Gems isn’t sleazy like that one, but you’d similarly be hard-pressed to find a character who isn’t morally reprehensible or severely compromised. In an age where most filmmakers follow the “save the cat” model of making every character somehow sympathetic, I enjoyed a film populated with dirtbags. Not exactly villains or antiheroes or beguiling underworld figures with great stories to tell. Just dirtbags. Irredeemable scumbags and crumbums that you hope to never meet in your life because they always lead a path of destruction and misery with them.

As in their previous film Good Time (I haven’t seen their earlier work), The Safdie Brothers give viewers a taste of the hard-hitting slummy side of modern New York that&