There’s a certain gleeful, masochist rush in watching a protagonist who is essentially an irredeemable piece of shit circle the proverbial drain of a self inflicted downward spiral for two hours and then, by his own hand, disappear down it. These stories are often relentlessly stressful and hellishly unpleasant and that goes to a certain degree here but because Uncut Gems is a film by Josh and Benny Safdie we are treated to something absolutely fucking spellbinding and told in such a breathless, unique fashion that the ugliness just becomes somehow tolerable. These are two filmmakers who understand movies, clearly have many films from back in the day in mind when they stylistically craft their work from credit font to score cues to editing, have a clear and inspired grasp of storytelling, sound design, music, cinematography and as such no matter how depressing, dire or distressing their films are in tone or subject matter, they are always gems themselves.
Adam Sandler acts up such a storm here I was periodically afraid that he’d have a stroke playing NYC jeweller Howard Ratner, a man with a mile wide gambling problem, apparent adrenaline addiction and a self destructive streak that blows a crater into both his personal and professional lives. Howard owes a shit ton of money to many people including loan shark Arno (Eric Bogosian, isn’t it nice to see him in stuff again?) who has dispatched his best goon Phil (Keith William Richards in a stunning debut performance) to harass, terrorize and pursue him all over the big apple. He’s got a wife (Idina Menzel) who hates him, a girlfriend (Julia Fox, who could be Debi Mazar’s daughter) who loves him, or hates him or perhaps both, she’s at that age where even she probably can differentiate between the two. He makes the mistake of showing NBA superstar Kevin Garnett (Kevin Garnett) a raw fire opal that’s worth many monies and soon it’s off to the races in a series of chases, confrontations, verbal standoffs, close quarters violence and scenes of irresponsible gambling that most definitely don’t fall into the ‘know your limit, play within it category.’ Howard is addicted to the mad rush of the bet, so much so that he’s willing to put his life, marriage, relationship and entire career on the line nearly without hesitation and if you’ve reached that point in your addiction, well… you are past the event horizon the way I see it.
The Safdie brothers have a way of bringing their environments, namely New York City, thrillingly alive in ways that one might not always think to infuse into the art of motion picture. Their casting is a deft mix of beloved Hollywood talent and people right off the streets that have no experience acting whatsoever, a choice that could cause tonal clashes in someone else’s hands but for them seems effortless and simply the way they were meant to make films. Take Phil for example, the violent goon who chases Howard until he’s simply had enough of his bullshit and provides the films biggest WTF surprise. Apparently they just spotted non-actor Williams heading to the L train in NYC and casted him right from there, or so the IMDb trivia page claims. The guy is pure fucking charisma, with touches of Frank Gorshin, Michael Rooker but possessing his own ruthless tough guy essence that doesn’t just steal scenes, but murders them with sinewy, real world magnetism. Hollywood’s highest paid casting director wishes they found this guy. Innovation and inspiration like that is what has put these two filmmakers ahead of the pack so far in their work. Gotta mention the score by their collaborator Daniel Lopatin too, for a film grounded on the streets of NYC there’s a beautifully ethereal nature to this composition full of swoops, swirls, synths, hisses, surprise choral passages and experimental sensibilities that tie into the intro and outro of the film, both presented in abstract form and are two of the most wonderful sustained transitions I’ve ever seen used to tell a story. Great film.