“Uncut Gems” was one of the best films of last year and may be worthy of the title of best film of the year. That said, like “The Lighthouse,” not all people will love this movie.
Directors Josh and Benny Safdie have created a film that is a master class of ratcheting tension. One of the ways they do that, though, is by having a complex sound design. In the movie, people frequently talk over each other, or dialogue is hard to hear because characters are in high-intensity spaces such as a night club or on a busy New York sidewalk. This choice by the directors and sound designers will possibly frustrate audiences because they won’t be able to always follow the conversations or story. But the story is second to style, and it works surprisingly well.
From the beginning, the Safdies force you to accept their style of filmmaking, and if you don’t, you’re going to have a bad time. However, if you are willing to open yourself to their chaotic genius, you should expect an emotional thrill ride that champions most action set pieces. “Uncut Gems” is edge-of-your-seat filmmaking at its finest.
The tension starts in a sequence that seems like it’s from another film. In it, a group of Ethiopian miners is mining for precious gems, but one of them is injured. The directors don’t shy away from the blood and bone of the incident, and they create empathy for a man the audience will never see again.
From this point on, the movie is about one of the most likably despicable characters ever written, Howard Ratner, played by Adam Sandler. This switch is jarring and genius. It’s not clear if this is intentional or not, but the Safdies seem to be commenting on our willingness to empathize with despicable characters in criminal enterprises while the men who make the enterprise possible are forgotten.
“Uncut Gems” also proves that great casting can make or break a movie. As the lead, Sandler demolishes the film. He’s brilliant. It’s hard to pinpoint all that the actor does to make Howard work, but he does. Some will be shocked that Sandler is adept in this dramatic role, but it shouldn’t be shocking. He proved in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch Drunk Love” and other independent films that he has more layers than he gets credit for.
In this film, for instance, he expresses incredible joy, experiences desperation that calls for tears, is fearful for his life, and wheels and deals his way out of conflicts with loan sharks. Sandler is a gifted actor that more should appreciate, and “Uncut Gems” is unquestionably the best film of his career.
While Sandler was able to give his directors emotional highs and lows, he also needed to remain likable when making idiotic choices, and that is not an easy feat. Well, he proved that he too is skilled at that early in his career with “Billy Madison” and “Happy Gilmore.”
Both of those films have ridiculous premises, but they work because Sandler is likable. His likability forces audiences to look past the premises and accept the stupidity of a grown man returning to grade school or an obnoxious amateur hockey player shaking up the game of golf.
In “Uncut Gems,” Sandler has to be more likable than ever because Ratner is a degenerate gambler who will put everything on the line for a big payoff. We beg him to stop gambling, but he cannot stop. Sandler then smiles, charms the audience, and forces them to root for him once more as he risks it all again. Ratner is a train careening off the rails that could crash at any moment, but with one last score, he might survive. You’ve got to ask yourself if you’re willing to stomach the ride to his possible destruction or his shocking success.