Uncut Gems is a loud, obnoxious, and stressful film. But for all the reasons you think you wouldn’t like watching it, you end up enjoying it. It’s a very unique, and fascinating experience.
Men with plans. Fortuitous outcomes. Motivations against the greedy and the corrupt. Those are the identifying factors of your typical movie protagonist. In some fashion, they are a hero fighting against injustice. As the audience we get swept up into their charge. We cheer for them, and their actions motivate us in our real lives. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. Uncut Gems doesn’t have any of this. It’s actually the opposite of all of this. But despite checking all the boxes as something ungainly, traditionally unwatchable. It isn’t. It is fascinating. You can’t take your eyes off of it. It relishes in its squalor.
Movies have often made subjects out of the detestable. Joker is one recent, popular example. They are fascinating because the worlds they explore and the perspectives they highlight are all so different than our own. These types of films push us to uncomfortable boundaries. Some of us relish in the violence, greed, the corruption which we try to avoid in our own lives. We often find ourselves enjoying these forbidden opportunities, and in doing so they make us question ourselves, and our beliefs. But Uncut Gems isn’t merely studying unrefined subject matter as a guilty pleasure, as its title may suggest. Uncut Gems is instead an opera of chaos. It is striking tragedy - the shock of it is what keeps our eyes glued, not the thrill.
The focus of Uncut Gems is Howard Ratner, a seedy jeweler who runs a store in New York’s diamond district. Howard isn’t redeemable in m(any) regards. He is greedy, he is a terrible father and husband, he cheats and lies to get ahead. His life is literally falling apart around him, and the choices he makes to get ahead in one regard seem to make things worse for him in another. When Howard smuggles in a rare sample of unrefined black opals from Africa, and finds a high profile buyer, it may be the answer to all of his problems. But with his debtors hounding him, and his redemption hanging on the outcome of a series of high risk ventures, nothing is as certain as it should be.
Ratner is played, surprisingly well, by Adam Sandler. It’s one of many surprisingly effective attributes of the film. Sandler is perfect for the role. High strung, dogged, and literally beat to a pulp - Sandler makes the character interesting instead of repulsive. I don’t honestly know how he pulls it off. I think that is part of the magic of this film. Howard is exactly the type of character we should hate. We shouldn’t want to watch him, but Sandler makes it impossible not to. We don’t feel sorry for him. We don’t foresee him ever turning the corner towards redemption. Things are constantly getting worse for him, and whenever the stakes are raised, Sandler’s performance is raised along with them.
Part of what makes Howard so interesting is how he always seems to make the worst decision. The film is a series of things getting more and more out of hand simply because Howard never makes the safe bet (pun intended). Sandler, fully committed to the role, doesn’t merely go along with these decisions. He fully embraces them. With everything on the line, he has no choice but to take bigger and bigger chances. He becomes one man set against seemingly insurmountable odds. Part of us want to see him succeed, just because of the sheer size of what he is up against. The other part of us want to see him fail. His antics and mannerisms convince us that this is the only way Howard knows how to live. He deserves what is coming for him.
This balance, between hope and distress, is what drives the film forward. Every scene is like a new choice in one of those make-your-own-adventure books; where Howard always picks the option you yourself would not have chosen. In this manner, we’re stuck in our seats just curious to see what will happen. We’ve already thrown caution into the wind. As such, the audience becomes interested in the outcome of Howard’s dilemma. Not because we feel any sort of loyalty to him, but for the sake of our own curiosity. It’s a snowball effect. A trainwreck. We can’t peel our eyes away, and we don’t necessarily feel good because of it.
Around Howard, the Safdie brothers create this setting that is seemingly coming down upon him. His store is small, cramped, and sealed off with a security door. They fit the camera in impossible places. There’s broken glass, broken doors, shouting, dust, and blood. There’s no escape when the people he lets in as prospective customers become his enemies. He’s always sweating. The picture is bright, often blinding. It makes the audience sweat too. Everything is cast in these high contrast tones which only add to the paranoia. It’s like the picture is fighting with itself. Nothing is inviting or soothing. It is crafted to be as uncomfortable as possible. The Safdies make their audience sit on nails, and yet we are surprised when we notice how we willingly do so. It is a masterwork of persuasion.
The Safdies also express this familiarity over their subject matter. They clearly know what they are talking about. This mastery over setting allows the film to effortlessly explain important details to the audience. There are many little complications, but the film doesn’t bog down on them. We learn as the narrative unfolds. Likewise, the cast is full of characters who belong in this environment. They hired people they knew, people they met, and people who they used to work with. These are all people who do in real life the things that they are shown doing in the film. It all feels so natural. And that’s what makes it so convincing. It isn’t an artificially built tragedy we are watching. This feels like real life, which makes it that much more concerning.
Uncut Gems is also juxtaposition. There is this synth-heavy score which seems more fitting for an 80’s fantasy film - but it works. There are interludes of brilliant colors - the insides of the gems which morph to become something out of a body-horror film. It’s all very unexpected. Likewise, these characters are all wealthy. They have nice things. It’s the American dream, a supposed example of capitalism at work. All of these things, and this money is what we are supposed to strive for. And yet, Howard’s life is a complete disaster. Its constantly stressful. He constantly fighting with other people who want the same thing he does.
There’s no time to sit back and enjoy life or what he has earned. It’s only about acquiring more, and doing so as quickly as possible. In this sense, his world view is warped. His victories are only short-lived, so he is constantly striving for the next one. It isn’t what we would expect from the lead of a film. He’s the capitalist anti-hero trying to get ahead in the world. I’d say we aren’t meant to learn from his mistakes, but we enjoy watching them. That’s the trick of this film.