Film Review | Uncut Gems: The electric charge of the downward spiral

Adam Sandler finally puts his talents to good use in the latest salvo from the Safdie brothers, the dynamic duo who are helping to redefine contemporary indie cinema

Apart from our innate fear of the inevitability or death, the fact that human beings are messy, unpredictable and often utterly idiotic creatures is among the chief reasons why we keep making art. We tell stories to each other in large part because we want to figure each other out, but also because the nexus of our desires often runs a rich, complex gamut whose dial is poised from embarrassing to destructive, with all the various shades in between.

The force of bloody-minded stupidity has, in fact, led to some of the most memorable pieces of cinema in recent memory. The inherently farcical but also potentially tragic energy that lies lodged in humanity’s ability to behave against their own best interests to attain some kind of short-term goal is a crucial ingredient of many of the Coen Brothers’ finest films, for example.

But that largely unbested sibling duo may have just bound its contemporary iteration, as Josh and Benny Safide (Heaven Knows What, Good Time) have just allowed Netflix to unleash their latest jolt of toxic adrenaline onto the world at large, and oh boy is it a rollercoaster to remember.

Uncut Gems finds Adam Sandler take on a career-best role as Howard Ratner, a New York jeweller and gambling addict who is in too deep with more shady players than he can count, and who does himself no favours by courting a retinue of high-powered players from the world of sports with the help of a useful and equally indefatigable assistant, Demany (Lakeith Stanfield). One of these potentially lucrative contracts is celebrity basketball player Kevin ‘KG’ Garnett of the Boston Celtics (playing himself), who insists on holding on to a rare black opal that has come into Howard’s possession, fresh from the Webo mine in Africa and set for a slot on a lucrative New York auction.

Foolishly lending the opal to KG may be the one altruistic act that Howard commits throughout the entire course of the film’s running time, but it ends up being the one that bites him in the ass good and proper: the basketball star insists the opal improves his performance on the court, and may not be all that willing to return it in time for the auction. Not that the hard-gambling, sweet-talking and always-scheming Howard doesn’t have other problems to distract him in the meantime. He is already all but divorced from his wife Dinah (voice-of-Elsa Idina Menzel), sharing an apartment – and a workspace – with the volatile young sexpot Julia (Julia Fox). He’s also got gangsters knocking at his door every other day demanding that their debts be repaid – debts that get suckered into bets almost as soon as the tiniest drip of cash sneaks into Howard’s pockets.

So yes, Howard is a man infinitely ‘beset’, largely by his own hand, but we also get a sense that at some point, the universe’s powers-that-be decided that this man needs to be put into a blender, and that the blender will never be unplugged.

Working off a script by frequent collaborator Ronald Bronstein, the Safdies plunge us deep and hard into the anxiety-riven universe of Howard’s existence. Much like the propulsive motion of their Robert Pattinson-starring crime vehicle Good Time, this is a film with no firm divisions and certainly no intervals: Howard can never catch a break, and when he does, he uses the opportunity to plunge himself into a fresh hole; seemingly out of a desire to exploit an opportunity, but it’s actually all about the gaping hole of oblivion that his gambling addiction pushes him into.

But the Safdies waste exactly zero time in moralising on Howard’s condition, instead respecting us enough to be taken along for the ride, whose consistent streak of black humour is redolent of the best of early Scorcese, and whose electric charge will tickle the worst glands of your lizard brain into pure illicit ecstasy.

The verdict

Kinetic and deliberately anxiety-inducing, Uncut Gems is a true diamond in the rough in the best possible ways, allowing Adam Sandler to channel his penchant for irreverent farce into something that has true story content, scummy and utterly amoral as it may be.

A gripping, uproarious trip that will hurt as much as it pleases, but you’ll actually be glad for the bruises by the end of it.

Uncut Gems is currently streaming on Netflix