Like headbanging a kilo of coke before tossing yourself off a 40-storey building, Uncut Gems is a vicious, visceral rush of drug-fuelled emotion anchored by the Safdie brothers’ superhuman understanding of filmic alchemy.
Beginning with a hypnotic, kaleidoscopic journey through a black opal, only to emerge out of Adam Sandler’s ass and proceed through the seedy annals of New York City, Netflix’s latest gamble functions something like a two-hour panic attack or an extended cocaine binge that’d make Hunter S. Thompson blush.
Sandler (who, thanks to this film and his earlier work with Paul Thomas Anderson is now officially In Vogue and Cool) stars as the gambling-addicted, slimy hustler Howard Ratner. Ratner runs a tacky shop in NYC’s diamond district, contracting the charismatic Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) to drag punters into his glimmering, TV-shopping-channel-aesthetic palace to buy such tasteful objets d’art as diamond-encrusted Furbies.
Howard has become obsessed with an Ethiopian-Jewish, uncut black opal – a stone which exerts a quasi-mystical effect on all that see it and which he imagines he can scoop well over a million dollars for at auction. But things rarely work out as planned, and when Demany brings real-life NBA star Kevin Garnett to the shop, Ratner can’t resist showing him his new piece. Garnett is awe-struck, becoming obsessed with the idea that the stone will bring him luck in his game, and practically forces Howard to let him borrow it.
That risk-laden choice sets off a delirious spiral of bad decisions and escalating stakes as Ratner battles to retrieve and sell the stone, all the while fighting off a vicious pack of loan sharks led by the violent, intimidating Arno (Eric Bogosian), letting his gambling addiction get the better of him at every turn, and trying to keep his collapsing family whole with a wife and a daughter who practically hate him and an extra-marital affair on the side. If it sounds exhausting, it’s because it really is.
Armed with some of the best sound editing in cinematic history, the Safdies are able to create a space where their audience can just understand everything that’s being said without actually being able to relax for a single second. Everyone is shouting, usually about different things to everyone else, and the dialogue is consistently ultra-aggressive (the film officially boasts the highest ‘fuck’-to-minute ratio of any feature film in history).
At any one moment, Howard appears to be having two or three conversations at the same time, whilst the outcomes of gambles hinge on other bets which in turn depend on vastly riskier wagers. All of which is to say that the brain has such a hard time trying to compute the chaos that it instead just collapses into pure panic.
There are indeed several points where Ratner ‘wins’ in a sense – where you or I would probably call it quits and take a deep breath – but he’s so completely addicted to the adrenaline rush that things inevitably slip back into the same patterns of uber-stress and release. Still though, for the audience, these wins channel the pure pleasure of a serotonin rush – I can’t recall the last time a film made me feel so euphoric in a single moment.
Darius Khondji lenses the whole affair like something out of the 1980’s, or maybe even earlier by way of New Hollywood, finding retro flare in juicy pan-and-zooms and high-contrast images that feel distinctly Altman-esque. He makes heavy use of mirrors and shots through glass and through glittering gemstones that feel almost architectural, like a school of thought based around late 20th Century excess. And, at one particularly stunning moment, the glow from a blacklit orange hoodie is used to light the face of the film’s protagonists. Filmed on 35mm, the film casts everything in a grainy, gritty, decidedly retro hue that works perfectly with the material; it may be – and I don’t say this lightly – Khondji’s best work.
Daniel Lopatin also lends a beautiful, lysergic score to the piece, albeit one that doesn’t quite have the same edge as his work on Good Time, and every actor involved puts in an absolutely stellar performance. Although Sandler truly deserves all of the praise that has been heaped upon him for his effort here, the true standout is Lakeith Stanfield, who proves once again with his nervy, slippery performance that he is surely destined to be a huge star of the coming decade.
At the surprise screening this critic attended several months ago, scores of disgruntled audience members walked out of the Odeon Leicester Square early to take their anger and confusion to Twitter. They condemned Uncut Gems as incomprehensible, aggressive, panic-attack-triggering, loud, and more than a little misanthropic; but that was precisely the point. For a film to be able to make its audience this uncomfortable, this stressed, this panicked, it takes a seismic amount of skill. Uncut Gems is a bravado showcase of cinematic prowess.
Uncut Gems releases in cinemas Friday 10th January, and on Netflix 31st January.