It’s a common cliche to describe an intense film as an “edge of your seat” experience. But the sensation that the Safdie Brothers have created in their newest film, “Uncut Gems,” could be better described as your body contorting in ways that it usually would in order to flee a dangerous situation.
The film, directed by brothers Benny and Josh and with writing help from Ronald Bronstein, is the follow-up to the creative unit’s mesmerizing breakthrough “Good Time,” which not only recontextualized Robert Pattinson as one of the most exciting actors on the planet but announced the Safdie Brothers as the new faces of gritty adrenaline-soaked cinema.
The new film follows Howard Ratner, played by Adam Sandler, a jeweler who runs an exclusive shop called KHM Gems and Jewelry tucked away in Midtown Manhattan’s jewelry district. His high-profile clientele is mainly brought in by his associate Demany, played by Lakeith Stanfield, for gaudy watches and necklaces and are watched closely through a series of security cameras and buzzed in through magnet triggered doors with bulletproof glass.
As we are first introduced to Howard, after the cameras zoom out of his colonoscopy, we quickly realize that his outer exterior is not much different from what we just saw. For every customer he has once he leaves the doctor’s office, there is a new scheme. We see him hedge money that he doesn’t have on bets and make empty promises to the gangsters he owes money to. He is currently living in a flophouse apartment in the city away from his family on Long Island who he had left for his showroom clerk Julia, played by a magnetic Julia Fox. But one thing is for certain, he knows his stones. And as he finally receives a shipment of a rare uncut opal after “months of research,” dug up from Ethiopian miners, Howard sees his biggest score glimmer right in front of his eyes.
As basketball legend Kevin Garnett, in the midst of the 2012 NBA Finals against the Philadelphia 76ers, becomes smitten with the stone during a visit to the shop, Howard tries to see how selling it to Garnett will benefit him in the best possible way. Even if it includes screwing over his partners, the gangsters that are looking to collect and completely losing his wife and kids on Long Island in the process.
In the hands of the Safdie Brothers, the feeling of claustrophobia in the city that Howard has created feels like a new pile of dirt being thrown on top of him as he is laying in his own grave. You quickly realize that there is a difference between empathizing his decisions and simply not being able to look away from the disastrous brush fire of a life that taints everything he touches. There is no other movie that has come out this year that makes you feel quite as deeply as “Uncut Gems.” Even though that feeling can at times make you as uncomfortable as Howard’s procedure in the beginning of the film, it is as invigorating as nearly avoiding a head-on car collision.
Sandler’s performance is monumental. As a focused actor, he has always had a supernatural ability to embody a unique blend of vulnerability with simmering rage in his work, as evident in dramatic roles like Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love” and recently in Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected).” But the sheer power and ferociousness he is able to harness as he drags the viewer through Howard’s delusional “win big” pipe dreams is simply awe-inspiring. This is the performance that will forever silence the doubters of Adam Sandler. Opera man can act his ass off. Give this man the Oscar he deserves.
“Uncut Gems” opens in select theaters this weekend and everywhere on Christmas Day nationwide.