Howard Ratner is a man sustained by adrenaline. Even that seems like understatement: As embodied by Adam Sandler in a frenzied, mesmerizing performance that is easily the actor’s greatest to date, Howard is a force of pure, devouring chaos. He isn’t merely addicted to risk; he’s addicted to escalation, driven to turn every encounter into a double-or-nothing wager. His compulsion is to consistently make irrational choices, an urge that at least partly seems like an unconscious attempt to mirror the cascading madness of the universe. The Joker wishes he had such unhinged energy, but Howard lacks a super-villain’s arch self-awareness. He’s a small-minded egomaniac at heart, one whose philosophy – if he can be said to have one at all – doesn’t extend much beyond the next triple-mortgaged hustle and the tip of his own dick.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Howard is also an insufferable asshole. His wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel), can barely stand to look at him, and her every interaction with him oozes with contempt. “You’re the most annoying person I’ve ever met,” she half-sneers and half-guffaws in a private moment during their family’s Passover celebration. It’s hard to disagree with her assessment, especially when Howard’s response to such opprobrium is to mumble pleadingly with his wife through his idiot, rodent grin. Of course, one of the pleasures of fiction is that it can permit one to slip inside the headspace of an otherwise awful, intolerable person for a brief period, to safely channel the peculiar vibrations that, in real life, would be positively enervating. Benny and Josh Safdie’s Uncut Gems – a film in which Howard is both the anti-hero and the organizing principle – is an exemplar of this sort of repulsively intimate character study. It’s an excruciatingly anxious work of cinema, one so precisely dialed in to its protagonist’s motor-mouthed, serotonin-chasing wavelength that one must consciously make an effort to blink and breathe while watching it.
Uncut Gems unfolds over a long weekend in New York City in early summer 2012, as Howard – an independent jewelry dealer with his own little windowless, appointment-only showroom near the 47th Street Diamond District – careens from one frantic negotiation and grotesque crisis to the next. On paper, it’s undeniably similar to the Safdie siblings’ previous feature, Good Time (2017), in which a live-wire Robert Pattinson sprinted through a single humming, neon-smeared NYC night in search of bail money for his jailed brother. Although Uncut Gems feels like it’s hitting some of the same notes – the jittery, claustrophobic 35mm photography; the grubby, messy authenticity of its urban setting; the sheer, throbbing momentum of the thing – the Safdies’ latest represents something closer to the character-powered street pictures of Sidney Lumet and Martin Scorsese, psychologically speaking. While Pattinson’s wild-eyed, over-cranked magnetism is essential to Good Time’s energy-drink potency, the hapless, small-time dirtbag he portrays in that film doesn’t have much depth beyond his jealous fraternal devotion.
In contrast, Howard isn’t just the focus of Uncut Gems’ story: He’s its animating electricity, the irresistible force that keeps it spinning to ever more dizzying heights of nerve-fraying tension. Like all born gamblers, he needs that tension; he’ll put everything on the line just to feel alive. Uncut Gems is powered principally by Howard’s compulsions, although the plot’s proximal catalyst is a million-dollar black opal, an absurdly enormous gemstone surreptitiously chiseled from the earth by rogue Ethiopian Jewish miners and smuggled out from under the noses of their Chinese corporate masters. This theft is depicted during the film’s prelude, which culminates in a psychedelic plunge into the iridescent heart of the opal itself. The camera swoops through shimmering colors that undulate like clouds of interstellar dust, before pulling back out to reveal the first of many dark gags: We’re no longer whizzing through the mineraloid structure of a gemstone, but wriggling through Howard’s colon, as seen on an endoscopic monitor in his doctor’s exam room.
It’s a scatological joke at the expense of Howard’s delusional vanity, as well as a more generalized acknowledgement that the film’s protagonist is a pudgy, middle-aged man whose fidgety energy at times feels like a kind of encroaching mortal panic. (“Jews and colon cancer. What’s up with that?” he wonders aloud. “I thought we were the chosen people.”) However, there’s also a more sober thematic point to this visual gag, in that Howard is a man who lives by his gut rather than his head. As is demonstrated repeatedly over the course of Uncut Gems’ 135 agonizingly stressful minutes, Howard almost always makes the worst possible choice at any given moment, prodded by his irresistible and inevitably wrongheaded gambler’s instincts. “That’s that dumbest fuckin’ bet I ever heard of,” a bookie remarks after taking a hefty and convoluted basketball wager from Howard. “I disagree,” is his simple response, as he flashes that shit-eating grin. Howard can’t explain it any better than that, because there’s no logic to it. He has a feeling, and there’s no arguing with a feeling.
In this instance, however, it might be a bit more than a feeling. The same day that the coveted black opal arrives in Howard’s shop – smuggled stateside in the belly of an ice-packed fish, one of many scriptural allusions wryly spattered throughout the film – the jeweler is visited by Boston Celtics star Kevin Garnett (portraying himself in a low-key but surprisingly nimble turn). He’s one of the many black celebrities rustled up by Howard’s sort-of-partner, Demany (LaKeith Stanfield, enjoyably prickly), a middleman for the kind of athletes, actors, and artists who are easily ensnared by the jeweler’s gaudy pieces and backslapping patter. Basketball obsessive and insecure wannabe that he is, Howard can’t resist showing off his newest acquisition to the NBA superstar – whom he calls “KG” with a bit too much boisterous familiarity – and Garnett naturally becomes infatuated with the opal at first sight. Howard already has the gemstone scheduled for auction at an inflated price in just a couple of days, but perhaps, Garnett suggests, he could just borrow the opal as a good-luck charm for his playoff game in Boston that evening.
Howard’s predictable acquiescence to Garnett’s wheedling embodies the horror-movie quality that lurks within Uncut Gems: The viewer will often find themselves murmuring “No, no, no, no” in terror as Sandler’s impulsive adrenaline junkie makes one terrible decision after another. Howard requests at least some token collateral for the opal, so Garnett hands over his diamond- and emerald-encrusted 2008 NBA Champion ring. This Howard immediately pawns to secure cash for a bet on the aforementioned Eastern Conference playoff game, as he’s convinced that his opal will provide the psychological and/or mystical edge to secure a Celtics victory.
Of course, Howard already owes money all over town, including sizable debts to his own loansharking brother-in-law, Arno (Eric Bogosian), and a pair of granite-slab goons (Tommy Kominik and Keith Williams Richards) who may be moonlighting as muscle for even more sinister and ruthless forces. Howard has pieces of jewelry in hock everywhere – some of which don’t even belong to him – and as many unpaid debts as he does obligations, including the rent on a chic city apartment for his employee-cum-mistress, Julia (Julia Fox). His curdled marriage to Dinah might be at the end of a long, sluggish slide into an inevitable divorce, but Julia seems to have some authentic (if baffling) affection for him. At the very least, they’ve established a strangely durable codependency based on lust, luxury, and an abstracted hunger for the next big score.
That hunger provides Uncut Gems with its buzzing, free-fall energy, elevating it beyond the darkly entertaining spectacle of watching an out-of-control man vainly attempt to keep a dozen balls in the air at once. The Safdies and co-writer Ronald Bronstein have crafted what amounts to a breathtaking and cacophonous point-of-view portrait of a high-level risk addict, the sort of person for whom the possibility of a huge windfall (or debilitating loss) is almost incidental to the thrill of letting it ride. It’s certainly one of the most immersive and unsparing depictions of addiction since Trainspotting (1996) or Shame (2011), a work that’s less interested in moralizing miserabilism than in conveying the without-a-net euphoria that might drive someone like Howard to do profoundly stupid things with absolutely no embarrassment or hesitation. Daniel Lopatin’s remarkable electronic score is essential in conveying this mood: alternately twinkling, vibrating, and screeching, but always remorseless in its consuming, tweaker-vision intensity.
For Howard, a dispassionate risk-reward analysis is a non-starter because the risk is the reward. The tantalizing possibility that he might emerge a winner is his pearl of great price – the giddy possibility, not the win itself – and one of the most conspicuous achievements of Uncut Gems is how the Safdies give that dream a durable glint of plausibility. For all the film’s grimy cruelty, sad-sack misery, and harsh insistence that any bad situation can always get worse, the notion that Howard might triumph in the end is always there, like a winning lottery ticket fluttering precariously (and tauntingly) on the precipice of a bottomless pit. It makes Uncut Gems simultaneously one of the most exhilarating and exhausting cinematic experiences of the year.