Uncut Gems (2019)

Uncut Gems is so relentlessly tense, I think I held my breath for its entire 2 hours 15 minutes duration. That’s a first for an Adam Sandler film! A crime thriller set in New York’s diamond district, it’s the latest film from New York-based brothers Josh and Benny Safdie, and their best to date. It’s truly exceptional.

I was lucky to see it early as the ‘surprise film’ at the 2019 London Film Festival, a bold choice for what’s usually a safe slot – last year’s ‘surprise’ was the insipid but Oscar-friendly Green Book. The Safdies’ film sparked several walkouts from the cinema and even more breathless praise from those who stayed. It’s going to divide people but for me it’s a masterpiece.

Just how do the Safdies achieve the relentless tension? I think it’s a combination of things, including making us care about an unlikeable character’s troubles, a careful structure, dialogue and sound design that’s crafted to seem overwhelming, the narrative flipping between several simultaneous threats, the camerawork and (lack of) blocking, and a superb supporting cast.  

Sandler plays it straight

Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a jeweller with a shop on New York’s 47th Street, who is trying to score a big-money deal that would allow him to pay off his growing gambling debts. He has imported a valuable black opal of legally dubious provenance – the titular ‘uncut gem’ – but he needs to convert it into cash before the debt-collecting heavies lose their patience, all the while dealing with personal and family crises. The film depicts an intensely stressful few days for Howard and for us the viewers.

The film starts with a short prologue shot in location in a diamond mine in Ethiopia, a costly few minutes for a relatively low budget film. This prologue does three things: it gives scale to Howard’s scheme, it reminds us that the jewellery trade is based on exploitation, and it imparts a sense wonder at the uncut gem itself, the camera slowly moves towards and even inside the gemstone to reveal a wondrous, multi-hued miniature cosmos … that comically dissolves to an endoscope camera images of Howard Ratner’s colon.

Adam Sandler disappears into the role of Howard Ratner, behind the bad teeth, goatee and ill-chosen glasses
Adam Sandler disappears into the role of Howard Ratner, behind the bad teeth, goatee and ill-chosen glasses

Sandler’s character is centre stage and the camera rarely leaves him. It’s a fascinating character study and Sandler gives a compelling, nuanced and believable performance. Ratner – the similarity to sleazy British jeweller charlatan Gerald Ratner seems to be a coincidence – is manic and compulsive. He’s always trying to prove his greatness and deals with crises moment by moment, improvising to get out of fixes. This neurotic risk-taking optimism, his tragic flaw, is what gives the film much of its tension and it’s painful to watch him get into increasingly deeper water. He doesn’t seem to be able to foresee the consequences of his actions, his self-annihilation.

Howard’s Jewishness is central to his character; the money-obsessed diamond-dealer might seem like a stereotype, but the Safdies are careful to make his Jewish identity well-rounded (the Safdies are Jewish).  We are shown the family Passover Seder with its ritual a calm centre point with the reciting of the ten plagues and there’s even a sinister joke about the killing of the first-borns.  

He’s an unlikeable character, a self-absorbed chancer, but Sandler manages to make him sympathetic. We know he’s deceiving himself more than the people he hustles. Howard has integrity, albeit by his own rules, and cares about more than just his own survival. We are fascinated and repulsed by this anti-hero, but we also want him to succeed and his self-destructive risk-taking is painful to watch.

Sandler excels in this.  It’s a serious role, although there’s a lot of humour in the dialogue, situations and his reactions. At moments it’s almost farcical, but the implicit threat makes the farce almost unbearable rather than light relief.  The humour is only occasionally used to diffuse tension, but more often just adds to the chaos.

Ultimately, Uncut Gems is tense, because we sympathise enough with Howard to share his tension and care about his predicaments.  

Furby
Adam Sandler offering Kevin Garnett a diamond-encrusted furby necklace, complete with swivelling eyeballs

Structured chaos

Although the film itself seems to reflect the chaos of Howard’s life, in reality it follows a meticulous 3-act structure. The first introduces Howard and sets up the various narrative threads and characters; we watch how Howard deals with several overlapping situations, taking risks; it’s breathless. The second act is a brief respite, offering a few stolen moments of quiet reflection before the final 45-minute sequence, which is a relentless tour-de-force. In many ways, this is an echo of the first act, but the stakes are higher and so is the tension, each bet a bigger risk.

That first and second acts set up the third, introducing even the smallest details so the tense and efficient final act isn’t dragged by exposition or minutiae. This is a masterful example of the ‘Chekov’s gun’ maxim which states that if in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired, otherwise don’t put it there. Uncut Gems applies this principle carefully down to the tiniest details, even down to the workings of a door mechanism.

Overwhelming sound design

Uncut Gems is very dialogue-heavy, with lots of fast-talking overlapping voices. It sounds natural and urgent, reminiscent of Robert Altman’s signature approach. There are often multiple conversations happening simultaneously.  This is overwhelming in the early scenes; the noisy melee of multiple conversations is a sensory overload. It sounds chaotic, but it was deliberate, 90% scripted, with only small amounts of improvisation.

It’s not unusual in post-production to rerecord dialogue that wasn’t picked up perfectly during the shoot, a process known as ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement). In the case of Uncut Gems only a few lines of the main dialogue had to be redone, but an incredible 45 minutes of background dialogue was dubbed and carefully mixed with the main conversations. The directors took an unusual care to sculpt the soundworld and as a result the background conversations are more immediate, the multiple layers a relentless assault on the senses.

Kevin Garnett, Lakeith Stanfield and Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems

The soundtrack by Daniel Lopatin (aka Oneohtrix Point Never, who also scored Good Time) is a synth-heavy score with John Carpenter style electronic sounds, swooping unrelenting arpeggios and mock-solemn pomp that emphasises the film’s manic tension, excitement and almost operatic tragic foreboding. The music is very prominent in the sound mix, almost drowning out the overlapping dialogue at times, but this just adds to the heightened chaos and unremitting momentum. There’s also music from Canadian singer and producer The Weeknd who makes a brief appearance as himself in the movie

Multiple threats

The main source of tension is derived by pulling Howard between multiple narrative threads. He’s constantly being pulled from one worry to the next.  It’s a multi-tasking hell.  The Safdies’ and co-writer Ronald Bronstein’s script gives him four main concerns:

  • The gem itself, a potentially massive windfall that has taken months of Howard’s scheming;
  • The fear of humiliation realised a couple of times during the film;
  • His fraught relationship with his girlfriend, and keeping her existence from his wife and family; and
  • The desperation to keep a significant customer and make a big sale.

When filming, the Safdies would use guide Sandler on which should be his immediate preoccupation. The constant switching is relentless and exhausting, and as the stakes get higher we feel increasingly pummelled.

In the background, Ratner also must balance personal issues, family commitments including Passover meal and a school play, and a colon cancer health scare. Just some minor background anxieties!

Adam Sandler and Julia Fox in Uncut Gems
Adam Sandler and Julia Fox in Uncut Gems

Oddly, Howard doesn’t seem too concerned about the heavies who have been hired to collect money that Howard owes, although this threat is a fifth source of tension for the audience. This is entirely in keeping with Howard’s personality, never anticipating the worst that can happen, always confident he can improvise his way out of the immediate concern.

Kinetic cinematography

The cinematography by Darius Khondji is very mobile, gliding around the action and the editing is fast paced. Khondji previous credits include Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, To Rome with Love, Irrational Man and Anything Else, Michael Haneke’s Funny Games and Amour and Jeunet & Caro’s Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children. His work on this film is a million miles from these classically crafted movies.

The film never leaves Howard; the camera often tracks or follows him.  And, like Howard, it rarely stops; a rare exception is a pivotal scene when Howard momentarily breaks down. Apparently, in rehearsal the scenes weren’t conventionally blocked for the camera; instead, they let the actors move in the space to suit the performance and then worked the camera positions around them. This gives the footage an effective kinetic realism.

Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems
Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems

It took me a while to notice that the shooting switches between Steadicam and hand-held, expressing Howard’s state of mind; Steadicam in the front of the jewellery store where he plays is the smooth charismatic salesman, and handheld in private, in the backroom and at particular moments of distress.  The camera motion – still, kinetic or shaky express the level of Howard’s anxiety.

Well-defined support

The supporting characters are well defined and are often the source of Howard’s anxiety.

Lakeith Stanfield (Sorry to Bother You) plays Demany, Howard’s assistant, who recruits clients. He’s good-humoured, but aggrieved and suspicious of Ratner.  Keith Garnett, the real-life basketball in the Boston Celtics, plays himself with dignity and poise but treats Howard with a mixture of mistrust and slight disdain.

Idina Menzel as Dinah Ratner, Howard’s wife in a zombie-marriage balances steadfastness and derision.  And Julia Fox is great as Ratner’s girlfriend (also called Julia), playing her as a survivalist, both sexy and uncertain.  Uncut Gems depicts a man’s world and the female characters are defined by their relationship to the men – it wouldn’t pass the Bechdel test! – but these two characters are vital in the thread about Howard’s personal life.

Julia Fox in Uncut Gems
Julia Fox in Uncut Gems

Howard’s brother Arno is played by Eric Bogosian with chilling calm, a sinister contrast to his usual high-energy style. 

I first saw Bogosian in Oliver Stone’s little-seen and underrated Talk Radio (1986) where he played a manic shock jock.  Interestingly, Uncut Gems shares some characteristics with Stone’s film, itself based on Bogosian’s play.  In both films, the first and third act are tense and relentless, the third act being a heightened echo of the first.  Both focus on a single character, a male Jewish motor-mouth who is on-screen constantly.  Identity and race are also underlying themes.  And both films have a similar, abrupt conclusion. I can’t help but think the Safdies were influenced by Talk Radio and Bogosian may have been cast to acknowledge this.

Uncut Gems is distributed by A24, known for their quirky and imaginative PR stunts. For this film, they opened a pop-up replica of Ratner’s shop in New York for three days before Christmas, selling the gold-placed furbies that feature in the movie. They also produced fake Ratner business cards, and if you dialled the number some lucky callers got Adam Sandler himself in character at the end of the line.

Howard Ratner's business card
An example of distributor A24’s inventive promotion – if you called the number on this business card at the moment it was released, you could speak to Adam Sandler in character.

The Safdies’ have been quoted in saying that Uncut Gems has been ten years in the making and a culmination of what they learned from their earlier films, including the realism of Daddy Longlegs (2009), the subject matter of their basketball documentary Lenny Cooke (2013), the grittiness of Heaven Knows What (2014) and the pacing of Good Time (2017). I’ve only seen the latter two and as great as they are, Uncut Gems is a step up. It was my favourite film at the London Film Festival and I can’t wait to see it again when it gets a formal release.

Uncut Gems will be released in the UK on 10th January 2020 before showing on Netflix. The soundtrack was released on Warp Records on 13th December 2019 and you can listen to or buy it here.

2 thoughts on “Uncut Gems (2019)”

  1. I’ve been trying to figure out the exact pinpoints of the act breaks and midpoint of “Uncut Gems”…and having a hard time doing so. Per your article, it sounds like you figured it out. Would you mind listing where the acts start and stop?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Jonathan. Thanks for your question and for reading my thoughts. When I first saw the film, last October, I walked out the cinema convinced about a three act structure although I should add I was feeling quite overwhelmed and exhilarated and that maybe clouded my judgement. However, on rewatching earlier this year I’m less sure.

      I think there’s still a case for saying the first act (if there is one) finishes 32 minutes in, when Howard sees the final basketball score while sitting in the back of the car, and he knows he’s won the bet. It sets up the characters, their relationships and situations, and also is one continuous build. After that we get the first moment of calm, as he surprises Julia in the apartment and we get to catch our breath.

      On second viewing, the longer middle portion doen’t really fit the ‘second act’ template so well, although it certainly has its moments of confrontation, tension and conflict, not least when Howard is bundled into the car boot. The third section I had in mind is immediately preceded by another (relatively) calm moment when Howard breaks down in front of Julia and she comforts him, another sort of release.

      The last half hour, from about 1hr 42 minutes is another continuous build-up in tension that for me echoes the first section with Howard’s reckless gambling, and of course is ultimately a resolution of his various problems and conflicts, So, in a way it kind of follows a variant of the three act structure – set-up, confrontation, resolution – but the film also has a hurtling momentum that rarely stops for breath and makes it difficult to definitely break up into separate acts. Do you have an opinion on the structure?

      Like

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