For all of the many, many faults in his body of work, there is no other actor alive who can do what Adam Sandler can do. No one else could go from the profoundly lazy Murder Mystery to Uncut Gems, a frantic masterpiece of the highest order. Hell, no one else could even come close to pulling off what Sandler does in Uncut Gems, using his career-best performance to fuel a force of nature of a movie, one that does not and cannot be stopped. He’s the keystone upon which the entirety of this crazily ambitious project from the Safdie brothers is perched, and he shoulders the weight with magnificent style.
Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a New York diamond district gems dealer with an apocalyptically self-destructive gambling addiction, whose import of a giant black opal from Ethiopia brings a whole new chaos into his life. We follow roughly a week in Howard’s life, as he navigates mob debts, auctions, Passover, an imminent divorce, and a series of simply outrageous basketball bets. Given how manic Howard is, every one of these problems almost immediately escalates to a life and death matter, and this exhausting chaos is thrust upon the audience without any mercy or breathing room.
I cannot remember the last time any film left me as shaken, exhilarated, and downright pummelled as Uncut Gems. Unbelievably intense set piece follows unbelievably intense set-piece, and never once in its over two hour runtime does it let up, with perhaps the tensest finale I’ve ever seen. It’s a lightspeed assault, deliberately abrasive and unwelcoming, and the feeling you exit the cinema with is a mix of being blackout drunk and having just been in a fight. The narrative drive that the Safdies bestow upon Uncut Gems is nothing short of miraculous, moving at a headspinning pace while never letting the plot slack or become confusing.
Sandler gives a monumental performance, desperate without being unhinged, unlikable without stopping you rooting for him, and possessed of an impossible level of energy. Like Connie Nikas in the Safdies’ previous film, Good Time, Howard is constantly on the move, but this time round, most of his supporting cast can almost keep up. Julia Fox gives a striking performance in her debut film role as Howard’s mistress Julia, and Lakeith Stanfield is commanding as jewellery sales middle man Demany. Idina Menzel is delightfully spiky as Howard’s wife Dinah, while basketball player Kevin Garnett is a revelation, utterly compelling as he plays a version of himself caught up in Howard’s schemes.
We see the world almost entirely through Howard’s eyes, and what he sees can be frightening. Most scenes contain some sort of sensory overload, whether that’s the claustrophobic echoes in Howard’s store becoming deafening or a hypnotic blacklight gig by The Weeknd (playing himself) in an exclusive nightclub. It’s very telling that when we briefly leave Howard’s company in favour of Julia’s, everything gets just a little bit quieter, the screams and general city din dying down.
On top of the aggressive soundscape sits Daniel Lopatin’s majestic score, mixing various styles as it drives the action ever forward, while Darius Khondji’s cinematography makes a perfect match for the blistering pace of the story. At some points immersively gritty on the city streets, at others falling into gorgeous abstraction, he helps grant the Safdies the most impressive, ambitious visuals they’ve ever had. Not content with merely delivering one of the definitive takes on New York on film, the brothers also take us to an astonishing Ethiopian mine, and even deep within the central opal, out of which we emerge into Howard’s colonoscopy, an opening gambit that lets you know exactly what you’re in for.
Never using it to break or undermine any tension, Uncut Gems also has a brilliant current of humour, as should any film that makes this effective a use of Adam Sandler. Hilarious line reads and a deep dive into the minutiae of Jewish family politics around the Seder make for very funny sequences, as do the utter car crashes that constitute the result of almost all Howard’s plans. Some of the laughs are nervous, some come purely from jokes, and soon the two meet and meld, combining joy and discomfort in a stingingly effective manner.
Though Uncut Gems does make a couple of neat points about how you can’t ignore the violence inherent in the business of precious gems, this is not a film to see if you’re looking for moral lessons or even moral protagonists. It’s a rollercoaster crossed with a hurricane that picks you up in a sleazy hole in New York and deposits you somewhere out in space, shaken and battered, yet exhilarated. I can’t quite believe a film this viscerally affecting exists, but it does, and we should all be grateful. It might not answer any profound questions, but it’ll fill your veins with adrenaline and your mind with sheer awe at its mastery.