Adam Sandler delivers a tour de force performance in Uncut Gems.
A24’s Uncut Gems is the latest film from The Safdie Brothers, the duo behind the critically acclaimed Robert Pattinson film Good Time. Their latest directorial effort features Adam Sandler as a jeweler in New York’s Diamond District who is in over his head with debt thanks to a gambling addiction. The film begins with Sandler’s Howard Ratner receiving a rock filled with uncut gems, which begins to cause him more harm than good. As the film moves on it becomes a deep character study of a man who constantly makes poor decisions for a chance at winning big.
The film begins in an African Mine where the titular uncut gem is found. We immediately are given a shot of a man horribly injured, a miner has broken his leg, and as a result a piece of bone is protruding from his calf with blood covering the entirety of his leg. The camera lingers, and the shot is incredibly uncomfortable. We hear the man scream in pain, and the other workers move him along hastily. Other men surround the injured worker in a panic, and the entire scene does nothing to help ease the audience. It’s a moment of panic and anxiety. It’s something that’s drilled into your brain to make you feel uncomfortable. It’s the warning sign to let us know that this isn’t going to be an easy film. You’re going to feel uncomfortable and anxious, and at times you’ll want to look away, but there’s no escape from this. This is about to be one hell of a ride, and you’re not prepared for the depths that it will go to.
There’s no other moment in the film that is as viscerally uncomfortable as the opening scene. There’s no major violence, and there’s nothing on screen that could make you feel disgusted per se. Yet the actions of Howard throughout the film, will pull you in and make you beg for a happy moment. He is constantly pulled further and further down a rabbit hole of bartering that is more fragile than a deck of cards. At times it begins to fall apart, yet somehow he finds a new way to make it even more complicated and unnerving. The threat of a bad deal constantly looming over him and us.
The film does such an amazing job of ramping up the tension that by the third act, when we see Howard do menial tasks like taking out the garbage, we’re constantly waiting for a shoe to drop. We’re waiting for someone to come out of the shadows to attack him or demand their money. We don’t want it to happen but we expect it to, and we expect it to all go wrong. It’s clear at every turn that Howard is building himself a maze that is nearly impossible for him to get out of. That even if he did win one score somewhere along the line, he’s in so deep that it would take a literal miracle to save him.
There isn’t a single element of the film that doesn’t work here. Everything from the production design, and lighting, to the score and editing help to drive up the tension of the film. It’s a masterfully crafted film that builds and builds and builds towards a harrowing conclusion. By the end of the film you’re either on the edge of your seat biting your nails, or crouched back into the fold of your chair, peeking through your fingers. You want to see what happens, and you want to know how far Harold will go, but it’s not going to be easy.
This film would fall apart without the masterful performance by Sandler, and the phenomenal direction by the Safdie brothers. This is a film that needs an actor who knows how to make us love him and want him dead at the same time. We never truly sympathize with Howard, we want him to learn his lesson, we want him to do something that makes him turn it all around. But at the same time, we want to see him fall apart. There’s entertainment in watching him fail, and the deck of cards he’s built around him collapse to the ground. But it’d only be enthralling and entertaining with a performance like this. Otherwise it’d be sad and upsetting. Sandler, despite his reputation for making “bad films,” proves here that he has an immense amount of talent. That he can go to some deep and dark places, and in doing so he helps create one of the best films of the year.
Uncut Gems is currently playing in theaters.