NYFF ’19 – ‘Uncut Gems’ is Another Dazzling Mind-Sore from the Safdie Brothers

The Safdie Brothers’ latest feature Uncut Gems is simultaneously one of the easiest things to watch and one of the hardest. Each minute you watch becomes more arduous than the last, but not a second can be missed. If you found yourself at home in the many anxieties of Good Time, the same will apply for the Safdies’ equally agitating Uncut Gems. This time, our headache is focused on Jewish New Yorker Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), who runs and owns the loudest gem store on the planet. What’s so special about their latest is the time it finds, among nonstop hectic scenes, to unpack the entire character of Howard Ratner. This is a film with so many twists and turns, and it’s so easy to get lost, but the unwavering focus on Howard balances out the rest of the noise.

From the very first moment we see him on screen, Howard Ratner never stops moving. If there’s any part of his body that moves the most, it’s his mouth — be it on the phone, in person, or all of the above, there’s a constant stream of thought that Howard never hesitates to shout. It is Howard’s shouting that carries Uncut Gems; not only is the entire plot found in the guttural words he exclaims, but also perhaps the most iconic use of Sandler’s talent. Sandler’s Howard Ratner deserves his own podcast, it’s so fun to listen to his incessant yelling. Along with the endless movement of his mouth, though, the rest of his body is also hustling nonstop. He shuffles around all the time, from place to place, yelling as he goes. Even in his own shop, he can’t help running from glass case to glass case, from office to storeroom. In the confines of the shop, Howard’s stressful movement is what keeps the film as anxiety-inducing as possible.

The moment Howard receives his special, uncut gem is one of the only moments he seems completely motionless. His undying efforts have resulted in this gem; after months of trying to snatch it from the hands of ‘Ethiopian Jews’, it arrives hidden in the belly of a fish. The camera takes a dive into the gems’ notches. With a winding cut of sparkling close-ups and starry skies, Howard claims you can see the entire universe if you look hard enough. It’s almost like receiving Howard’s psyche in a box — under all the ridges and dust, in that colourful shine, there’s some sort of insane magic. 

As soon as Howard has it, he’s already handed it off to someone else — for free, at that! The priceless opal is passed to Celtics player Kevin Garnett, who claims to feel the magic of the rock. After he leaves the shop, Howard throws whatever cash he can scrounge into a bet on KG. For one of the only times in the film, we rejoice with Howard as he sits and stands over and over, watching KG kill on the court. But here is where Howard’s flawed priorities are introduced: instead of giving even a minute to his family, he loads his entire attention span into money. There’s one exception to this rule — his girlfriend Julia (Julia Fox). But he’s constantly using her for monetary gain, even willing to risk her safety to do so. 

Uncut Gems is funny. It’s the kind of humour one yearns to find — nothing is forced, everything feels like an inside joke. The entire film feels more like an extended cut of comedic relief; Howard isn’t the typical protagonist, but the deep cut into his story and personality question why he hasn’t been all along. Characterised excellently by the Safdies, his brash mannerisms become less annoying and more heartwarming. When Howard fails, our first impulse is obviously to laugh. He’s got a pretty incredible way of failing at everything he attempts. But by the end of the film, it’s almost easier to empathise with his frequent mistakes. Either way — be it laughing at Howard or crying for him — the film elicits an emotional response like none other.

Gems are timeless. They’ve a time of conception, and earn notches along the way, but they can last forever. Watching Uncut Gems is similar. It’s hard to tell exactly when everything happens, how long it’s been going on, or where it’ll end, exactly. Howards yelling could span over several epochs, or it could only be ten seconds — it all feels the same.

Uncut Gems had its premiere at NYFF on October 12th

by Fletcher Peters

Originally from the suburbs of Chicago, Fletcher is now living in New York studying towards a BA in Cinema Studies. She loves crossword puzzles, low-budget off-off Broadway shows, and when she’s at home, annoying her cats. Her favorite films include Rear Window, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. She’s also a fan of everything Star Wars related. You can find her on TwitterLetterboxd, and Instagram.

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