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’s been shunted off to period dramas like The Deuce. We’re talking thick-accented outer-borough weirdos and the wealthy who need to spend a fortune to live like trash. A less tolerant audience member might have their patience tested, but the film is so grandiose in its repugnancy and unrelenting in its pacing that you can barely breathe long enough to let it sink in.

SR: I think this probably did test a fair amount of audience members. As I said, it certainly tested me, even as I plan to go back for more. If you’re up for going on the ride with the Safdie Brothers, if your heart can take it, I think it’s worth the anxiety.

We’ve seen before what Adam Sandler can do when given serious material, in Punch-Drunk Love or The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) more recently, but this turn felt like an even more cataclysmic shift from his previous work. Sandler, even and especially in his comedic roles, has always been an actor with a dual capacity for humor and unhinged rage. This role required both in a deeper, more dynamic way. We see how charismatic Howard Ratner can be, when he’s entertaining celebrity clients or when he’s manipulating family members to do things for him. What is further compelling is seeing how deranged he can be when he’s watching a sports game when he has money on the line, or when any of his gambles are in danger of unraveling. He’s a real force to be reckoned in this movie whether he’s in a position of power or not. He’s in almost every scene, but he’s by no means the only actor working on a high level here. What other performances did you enjoy?

CR: Kevin Garnett surprisingly handles the material really well playing himself. He has no vanity here. It’s an unflattering performance given his on-screen self’s penchant to lash out or behave selfishly. I also enjoyed Eric Bogosian’s Arno. Bogosian has obviously established a fine career as a playwright, but I’ve always enjoyed the boiling hostility he brings to his roles in everything from his incredible starring role in Oliver Stone’s Talk Radio to playing the villain in the Steven Segal actioner Under Siege 2: Dark Territory. He’s not a conventional screen villain, but he’s equally intimidating when he’s pissed at or quietly dismissive of Sandler.

None of them would work so well if Sandler wasn’t so adept at balancing selfish recklessness with an innate likability. You sympathize, to a degree, with a character like Arno because Howard is such a maddeningly frustrating, unpredictable S.O.B. Still, you revel so much in the pleasures Howard takes in pulling one over on someone or getting out of a jam because the rush invigorates him. He has moments of immense internality here where you can see his brain moving at the speed of light playing every scenario out as he tries to figure out his next move. Howard is a bullet train and everyone is are the fools on the tracks not ready for him to come hurtling at him.

SR: I also loved Julia Fox in her first feature film role. She’s one of these actors the Safdie brothers found in New York City who were not traditionally actors. Watching the movie I wouldn’t have guessed this was her first big time role. She shared the screen with Sandler with the ease and poise of a star. Their extramarital “love story” seemed the perfect and appropriate American tale at this moment in our current status-obsessed zeitgeist. Idina Menzel gave a strong turn as Howard’s fed-up wife; I would have liked to see more of her.

I want to respond to something you said a little earlier—I want to talk about the dirtbags. This film was lousy with them. You’re absolutely right when you say almost no characters in Uncut Gems are admirable in any way, but man do I enjoy watching them. I do think though, that Sandler’s Ratner, as despicable and selfishly self-destructive as he could be, was an interesting character for the very reason he was so despicable. His vision for the opal, the titular uncut gem (and grant it we never really find out if his estimation of the gem is accurate or not) is admirable in a way to me. Further, his single-minded designs for the gem and how it played into his overarching goals for the ultimate gamble, the ultimate score—I could relate to his mania in a way, from a creative perspective. That I can feel this way about him is a testament to how much of a slick talking smooth operator Howard could be. Despite all the wild risks he took, I can still find him compelling and perhaps persuasive, even as his tale should clearly be more than a little cautionary. This is how he wins, you know? Maybe you have to lose yourself in your work to make a masterpiece.

Scott Ray is from Mississippi. He is a PhD student in fiction at the University of North Texas. His work has appeared in Hobart, Measure, Jellyfish Review and elsewhere. He is the Production Editor at American Literary Review.

Charlie Riccardelli graduated from the University of North Texas with his Ph.D. in Creative Writing and earned his M.F.A. at William Paterson University. A New Jersey native, he currently lives in Denton, Texas where he is a professor for the Department of Technical Communication, as well as their academic advisor. He previously served as an editor/writer for American Microreviews and Interviews and assistant fiction editor for American Literary Review. His short stories and essays have appeared in various publications, including film articles for PopMatters and Hobart.