An arresting cacophony of sound fills the frame. A career-best Adam Sandler stammers anxiously. He awaits the next big hit. His life has become a high stakes bet. Recording genius Daniel Lopatin (the undeniable talent Oneohtrix Point Never) has supplemented a pins-and-needles score. The mounting tension of Uncut Gems cuts through the soul like a well-sharpened blade. It bleeds anxiety. The Safdie Brothers have poured out every ounce of creative energy. They have crafted one of the most anxious, audience-terrorizing films of our time.
Brutalizing its audience, Uncut Gems strong-arms its thematic core into a truly stressful tale of money-hungry greed. Sandler plays Howard Ratner with unrelenting passion, a New York City jeweler chasing the big score. The movie begins with Howard’s colonoscopy and stays very much in his guts from there. With exhilarating stakes, Uncut Gems dangles the audience out of reach resolution. It compiles shock and a wall of aural and visual overstimulation as though it truly means to assault the senses. There is no ride at the movies quite like this one: cutting, sure, and always dangerous.
Not since Punch-Drunk Love (2002) has Adam Sandler ever been so capable, or at least willing. The often-ridiculed comedy actor has not brought any laughs this time. He turns in a deathly serious and edge-of-your-seat dramatic turn that lives within the fringes of darkness and deep regrets. There is nothing that could have predicated this work. It is singular and incessant, willing itself into material existence, despite everything we may think we know about its actor. Whatever it was, it’s all wrong. This is Adam Sandler, dark, complex, and brooding, his spirit laid totally bare and raped of any reprieve.
Assured aesthetic care has been taken to give Uncut Gems its own feeling. Everything about the film carries the weight of its directors’ signatures. It is an authentic document of stress. The feelings that the Safdie Brothers were able to leverage out of Good Time (2017) are well expounded. While that film runs terse and tight, too, it rarely lingers near the constant peak of dread and worry that they have achieved in this outing. Many will put Uncut Gems away prematurely. My own wife demurred at least twice during our attempts to watch it, it does not allow any comfort, and exploits every one of its characters’ vulnerabilities.
By any other hand, the story would not run. The Safdies get the feeling exactly right. They exploit Adam Sandler for the natural anxiety he has always had. They find great leverage in the high-stakes betting scene, wrapping Boston Celtics star Kevin Garnett into the plot in majorly unexpected ways. There are superb moments where we feel the pure rush of adrenaline. We can internalize what Howard is in it for. This film lives right on the edge with him.
Uncut Gems is a penetrating mental breakdown of a film. It runs as hot as they come. It may be the most anxious film I’ve ever witnessed. Internally, it is constantly combusting and spurning toward desperation for Howard’s Next Big Score. The anxiety of our culture has been manifested. Rarely has any film so deeply internalized an addiction and lived so recklessly inside the core of what that is. The Safdie Brothers get it exactly right. Painfully brilliant, Uncut Gems is the antithesis of the problem with modern film. It’s bold, brave, and ballsy in ways nothing else is. If films resemble anything like the thrill of a theme park this year, this one is the park’s most dangerous rollercoaster.