Review: Uncut Gems
Max Shepherd reviews the Safdie Brothers’ intense gambling thriller.
An anxiety-inducing ride with a gem-dealing compulsive gambler: Uncut Gems is a Netflix original that is anything but chill.
Josh and Benny Safdie – the directors of Uncut Gems – continue their trend of making high energy yet ultimately bleak films that have been steadily building their reputation over the past decade. Adam Sandler delivers a lead performance that many viewers would not have believed possible from a man largely known for his many – too many – slapstick comedy performances. However, anyone who has seen Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love – in which Sandler plays a socially awkward salesman navigating the dangerous waters of unrequited love – will know that he has a sledgehammer performance or two buried deep within him. Yet the roles could not be more different. The protagonist Howard Ratner is as infuriating as he is captivating, lurching from one terrible decision to the next. He takes the phrase “out of the frying pan into the fire” to entirely new levels. Yet, despite the main character being thoroughly unlikeable, the film manages to remain compelling throughout. Sandler embodies Howard’s character so convincingly that it is hard to imagine him working anywhere other than the hectic diamond district in which the film is largely set.
The sensory overload that I felt in the cinema as Sandler shouted across six people in his claustrophobic showroom…was definitely enhanced by the frenzied music.
The supporting cast works well to create a fleshed-out world. A standout being Howard’s enterprising girlfriend Julia, whose portrayal not only brought some much-needed humanity to the film but also several breakthrough acting nominations for the promising Julia Fox. Another highlight was the casting of NBA legend Kevin Garnett as a fictionalised version of himself who becomes increasingly exasperated whilst trying to do business with Howard – a feeling most likely shared with the audience. Real footage from Garnett’s career is utilised well, adding authenticity to the gambling aspect of the film. The one choice that did seem strange was a cameo from The Weeknd that felt somewhat shoehorned into the overall narrative, seemingly included to allow for a set-piece that was admittedly visually striking yet ultimately unnecessary.
Some may find the film’s score abrasive, but personally I found it conducive to the rising sense of panic that permeated every frame of the movie. The sensory overload that I felt in the cinema as Sandler shouted across six people in his claustrophobic showroom, whilst somebody else was shouting at the shop assistants to buzz them out of the double bullet-proof glass doors, was definitely enhanced by the frenzied music. This effect may be lost on the majority of viewers who choose to watch it on Netflix, but in the cinema at least the audio worked well.
My main criticism of Uncut Gems would be its runtime of 2 hours 15 minutes. Towards the end I began to feel physically tired from the relentless assault on my senses. Furthermore, despite Sandler’s performance being undoubtedly excellent, I did not want to spend another second in the company of Howard Ratner. Rather than leaving the audience wanting more, the film left everything out on the pitch. But maybe it is fitting that a film simulating the highs and lows of a gambling addict would follow the sports cliché rather than the acting one.
Overall, Uncut Gems works brilliantly to create an atmosphere that will keep your heart rate elevated for practically the full 135 minutes, maybe the perfect antidote for Netflix’s previous big release – The Irishman – which in comparison felt like being stuck in a traffic jam, but longer. With the film already available on Netflix, there really is no excuse for not watching it. The performance from Adam Sandler alone is worth seeing, and factoring in the crazy musical score and direction from the Safdie brothers, you have one of the most interesting, affecting and visceral movies of recent times.