The greatest scene in Uncut Gems involves Adam Sandler's character coming face-to-face with the object of his desire. It's an object that he has been tirelessly trying to acquire for about an hour. As audience members, we've been made aware that if he fails to obtain the object in a certain amount of time, he'd be at the risk of losing everything — his family, every last penny he has, and perhaps even his life.
But when the elusive object is finally within touching distance, Sandler's character — a New York jeweller by the name of Howard Ratner — realises, along with the audience, that the glass door separating him from it is jammed. Howard proceeds to do everything in his power to pry the door open; he would've taken an axe to it, but the audience figures out that it is bulletproof.
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It is perhaps the most thrilling, frustrating and anxiety inducing action scene of the year — but not a single punch is thrown, nor a single shot fired. The effect of the scene, and of Uncut Gems in general, is to tether you, for two hours, to the most repulsive train wreck of a man as he digs himself into a hole, and then attempts to claw his way out of it — painfully, repetitively, unsuccessfully. You're the explosive vest strapped onto the body of a suicide bomber.
But for a film with so much forward momentum, its protagonist doesn't seem to be getting anywhere.
Howard is having a bad day -- he's up to his neck in debt, the million-dollar 'uncut gem' he spent a year trying to get his hands on has sort of been stolen, his wife is divorcing him, his children seem to be turning into him, his mistress is seeing someone else, he's worried he might have colon cancer, and to make matters worse, the door of his showroom is jammed.
While the escalation of tension is almost unbearably relentless, the lasting sensation of watching Uncut Gems is almost like tumbling down a hill, with no branch to cling on for support. There is an inevitability to Howard's actions; the audience does not know that it won't end well for him, but they want it to. Directors Josh and Benny Safdie pull off the most difficult dramatic deadlift; they make the audience care about a self-destructive man with next to no redeeming qualities. Uncut Gems is the most accurate film about addiction since perhaps Steve McQueen's Shame.
It features what is without a doubt the greatest performance Adam Sandler has given in his career. Uncut Gems finds him in rare dramatic form; it's a weapon in his arsenal that the actor keeps hidden, breaking it out on occasion, almost as if to reassure himself that it still works. This isn't the Jack & Jill version of Sandler; this is Sandler in Punch Drunk Love and Funny People form — an utterly magnetic and imposing screen presence.
As Howard pinballs from one bad decision to the next, all the audience can do is observe in horror as his life disintegrates before his eyes.
The Safdies' version of New York is unlike any other. It is perhaps on the opposite end of the spectrum from Woody Allen's romanticised idea of the city. Even Martin Scorsese, who is one of the executive producers on Uncut Gems, allows a certain sentimentality to seep into his New York films, as grounded as some of them may be. The Safdies, meanwhile, almost appear to be chipping away the decades of cinematic sheen that has polished the city's reputation. In Uncut Gems, they take turns down alleys that we've never seen on screen; areas like the Diamond District are rarely represented in movies, and therefore, almost exotic.
This is the first time that the Safdies are working with the legendary cinematographer Darius Khondji, who last lensed New York for director James Gray in The Immigrant. On the surface, you wouldn't be able to tell that you're viewing the city through the same man's prism; but there is an unforgiving quality to NYC in both films. It's a place that can consume just about anyone, regardless of how successful they may be.
Through the course of Uncut Gems, Howard's path crosses with dozens of people, most of whom he appears to already have some sort of relationship with. He haggles with pawn dealers and confronts up-and-coming music stars; he pleads with his wife and bumps into NBA champions. For someone who depends so desperately on other human beings, he's quite alone in life.
It's the ultimate parable about the modern man — a creature pushed to his limits by a world that has no time for hesitation and humility. It's a world where everybody is expendable, a competitive arena that systematically beats the decency out of people and pushes them to insane limits just to be able to feel something. Anything.
In the years to come, the power and relevance of Uncut Gems will be appreciated even more. It is a capsule of our terrible times; a lightning-in-a-bottle movie that will be studied in schools, debated among our saner descendants, and discussed endlessly on Letterboxe.