If thrillers tend to follow a narrative arc that looks like a curve, the Safdie brothers prefer one shaped like a coil. Their excellent new film, Uncut Gems, is an unnerving story of spiraling bad decisions and escalating violence. It’s also equal parts about gambling, Judaism, and Adam Sandler’s goatee.
The stakes are set from the movie’s opening scene where a mining accident in Ethiopia (complete with a flash of exposed shin bone) enables two thieves to sneak out a rare opal that will end up in the hands of Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a New York jeweler with a penchant for ostentatious ice. Need a jeweled Furby? See Ratner.
Like any tragic New Yorker, Ratner is a Knicks fan. But when Celtics center Kevin Garnett rolls through his shop, Ratner realizes his higher calling isn’t fandom but a love of winning. Ratner is in all kinds of debt that he squirrels out of by borrowing more, constantly over-leveraging himself, and torching bridges.
If you’re a hyper-cautious, keeps-their-spending-budget-in-a-spreadsheet viewer like me, the whole experience will make you deeply uneasy. But Ratner — through Sandler’s charming sneer and dirtbag facial hair — never loses hope that he can beat the house. If there’s a central idea to Uncut Gems, it’s that the heart of gambling addiction isn’t greed, but the elation of winning — and every insatiable feeling that follows. Success is always within reach, if just one thing would turn out right. Each bad bet can be erased by a slightly bigger bet, this one finally the sure thing.
In this way, Uncut Gems closely resembles the Safdies’ last movie Good Time. (It’s streaming on a number of platforms, including Amazon Prime Video, if you’ve missed it.) There are the obvious visual similarities. The Safdies coat Gems in indulgent swirls of ‘80s pastiche. The effect is less nostalgic and more of dread, as the low drone of synthesizers creeps into each scene.
Where Good Time had an electric Robert Pattinson at the center of it, Gems hinges entirely on Adam Sandler. And it’s hard to say enough good things about him here. His performance is likely to be compared to his last great prestige outing in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love. But that was a full-bodied role, with an angry, confused machismo at the center of it. Uncut Gems asks something entirely different of Sandler; it’s a role that’s not necessarily more subtle but more calculated. The Safdies often keep the camera tight on its actors’ faces, confronting the viewer with blemished skin and nervous flop sweat. Sandler is maybe most impressive here, with his control of small facial tics and a conniving smirk that peeks out in every deranged conversation he has. He’s often detestable yet deeply sympathetic. Sure, there’s a lot to make of Sandler’s dramatic turn here, but he’s a comedian who has made a career playing man-children. Ratner isn’t Billy Madison, but he’s not not Billy Madison.
Everyone else in the movie is basically furniture for Sandler to bump into. Still, the cast is loads of fun. Garnett is a parody of himself, as is The Weeknd, doing his whole horny crooner thing. An underused Lakeith Stanfield brings his anxious energy. Mike Francesa plays Ratner’s bookie, though he might as well be playing himself, the way he barks about sports.
For all its posturing and crafty filmmaking, Uncut Gems is just a movie that’s very much itself. Sure, Uncut Gems feels like New York by way of John Cassavetes and Robert Altman, but it’s the product of the Safdies’ self-assured vision. There are also quieter, personal touches amid the chaos. In particular, a Passover seder precedes one of the movie’s sadder, more desperate moments.
Still, there’s a kind of empty, nihilist morality at the heart of the Safdies’ films — or maybe not really one at all — and Uncut Gems won’t really leave you asking any questions other than deciding whether Ratner is chaotic good or chaotic evil. But these ideas are hardly the point. Uncut Gems is about the thrill of the gambit, the jolt of glee and terror in watching someone pursue the next shiny thing.