Reel Review - Uncut Gems (2019)
Everything about Uncut Gems is at near-constant fever pitch. It’s loud, it’s busy, it’s fast, it’s frenetic. It’s fun. Just watch it.
Fraternal directors Josh and Benny Safdie throw us into the chaotic underworld and manic mind of jeweller and gambling addict Howard Ratner just as he comes into possession of a gem with the apparent ability to change his luck. The Safdies employ some simple filmmaking techniques to devastating effect and extract career-bests out of many of their fellow filmmakers, bringing this strong and distinctive vision to full and feverish fruition.
There are a number of standout elements in this film that are deserving of a review in their own right. Firstly, there is the cinematography of Darius Khondji—Okja and Midnight in Paris, amongst a slew of others. Khondji adopts a never-explained gritty, almost neon-like 80s-retro vibe that, nevertheless, feels terribly appropriate despite the fact that this film is set in the early 2010s. It makes for some of the most stunning and arresting visuals of 2019. Secondly, there’s the score by Daniel Lopatin that, likewise, adopts that retro vibe and runs off with it. It’s a panic-inducing, drug-fuelled trip of a score that pulls you into the mind of this movie. For anyone with a love of 70s and 80s sci-fi, this amped-up synth score will feel pleasantly nostalgic—yet, it is by far and away quirky and innovative enough to feel new and fresh. Then there’s the thing that pulls it all together, that takes you careening on this psychedelic, mind-altering acid trip of a film: Adam Sandler’s performance.
Sandler never quite loses himself in this role but instead hones and channels his “Sandler-isms” to deliver the best performance of his career. His portrayal of obsession is tangible and so all-consuming that even when the otherworldly opal that serves as the focus of his obsessions isn’t in his hands, you can see it sparkling in his eyes. Sandler gives Ratner a pyretic mania that outshines even Gollum’s obsession with the One Ring and leaves you wondering why he’s waited this long to give us a performance this compelling.
With all of these great elements at play, this film can feel overwhelming. From the first dizzying shot to the last, all of your senses feel attacked either by dialogue that always involves at least two characters speaking over one another, a crowded mise en scène and some… crass directorial choices (there’s a vortex sequence that takes us straight into Ratner’s colon). Nevertheless, the story moves so quickly and is carried so expertly that these jarring elements smooth out and you can only watch, wide-eyed and a little perturbed, as Ratner’s uncomfortably compulsive behaviour drives this train straight off the tracks.
This is unquestionably one of the best films of 2019 and, as such, its complete omission from the 92nd Academy Awards is conspicuous until we consider that the cinematography, however great, wasn’t the “outer space-battlefield-natural-light-gimmick” fodder that the Academy loves to love. Nor was the score, however beautiful, conventional enough to warrant a nod—Hildur Guðnadóttir rightly won the Oscar for her work on Joker—and, of course, Sandler, however redeeming his performance, still has the stench of too many fart jokes to rub shoulders with the Hollywood cool kids. To top it all off, executive producers Martin Scorsese and Emma Tillinger Koskoff had more marketable, less offensive material to peddle to the Academy this year in their pet project The Irishman. Nevertheless, it’s a shameful snub—even if only for the sake of the Safdies who did some of the best directing of the decade. But don’t let that get in your way. Just watch it.