TIFF19 Film Review: Uncut Gems

Written By: Riyan Bajric

Uncut Gems, a modern-day Roman Tragedy, situated in the fluorescent back rooms and the front showrooms of New York City’s shopping underbelly, is the latest film from the Safdie Brothers. If you have no idea who the Safdie brothers are, they are two (actual) brothers who gained profuse acclaim after shocking audiences with the 2017 crime-drama Good Time starring Robert Pattinson. Not only can Pattinson thank the Safdie’s for landing the coveted role of Bruce Wayne with the film, as well as allowing that film to shed his Edward Cullen/Twilight teen image, but the film was also an obtrusive reminder to the world that these brothers are not playing around when it comes to neon lit storytelling. Their documentary style type filmmaking along with their abrasive, headache induing filming style allows for their low-budget pictures to glisten, no matter how bad their VFX may be. The Safdie’s are a clear and present reminder that, with the right story, passion is always reflective. With their latest film, Uncut Gems, its not secret, and reflects here. 

Uncut Gems stars Adam Sandler as Howard Ratner, a down-on-his luck, gambling addicted, cheating, lying, manipulative NYC jeweller who, if we’ve ever seen it in cinema, has a degree in bullshit. Although the “gift-of-the-gab” definition may not particularly suit Howard, since everyone, all the time, knows he is always talking out of his ass, Sandler convinces himself and audiences that no one else could have pulled off this role, other than him. Abrasive, in your face, annoying and relentless, Sandler’s performance may very well be, a staple New York City character for decades to come.

Yet, while Sandler may very well grace every single shot and scene in the film, the Safdie brothers are still sure and able to allow the film to evolve into what it really is, and thats an announcement. A proclamation of presence and a big shout out to the world of cinema, Uncut Gems is a film to solidify that the Safdie brothers are here, and they are here to stay. Uncut Gems isn’t only a film, its an experience. Much like the first time you do cocaine, this film is the epitome of cocaine, caviar, K’vatsh and Grand Theft Auto printed onto celluloid. An unapologetic adrenaline shot to the senses.

What initially drew me in about this film was sonically, how unique it sounded, narratively speaking, without knowing how loud and it is aesthetically as well. The main theme which is a series of hard hitting, resonating synths overlapped with fluorescent ambience is immediately engrained into your memory. Daniel Lopatin takes a gritty in your face film, and scores each scene with electronic chaos yet equal grace. Not only does his score tighten and heightens the cinematic movie experience, but it also broadens its effect on the senses by creating soundscapes that are transcendent, it’s as if the soundtrack was created by the sounds of slot machines, casino betting, and the whaling of a screeching auctioneer in your ear at all times. The sounds of Uncut Gems are as dreamy as a nightmare could be. Drowning souls lost for the pursuit of money as if they are trapped in the notes that belt and vibrate across the screen, Uncut Gems is a documentary style take on Wayne Kramer’s hyper-violent Running Scared, but instead of opting for violence and gore, the film uses dialogue as its weapon.

While the narrative of Uncut Gems could be argued to expose the very simple story of just, the pursuit of money, the picture dives deep into social and economic commentary of capitalism and corporate greed as well. On the surface level, perhaps because of the value it holds in our society, the overall tone and theme of the film carries a type of mysticism behind it. Idolized and mythologized since its creation, the pursuit of wealth to bring happiness is an age-old cautionary tale that consistently makes fools out of many who chase it, including our protagonist Howard Ratner.

Set in 2012 within the deep diamond district of New York, Sandler’s characters faults become clear early on. His inability to being a family man adds to his persona. Ratner’s addicted ultimately fuels the narrative of the film as well as the desires of all the characters around him, leading to a very flawed and uncut portrait of a man as well as society as a whole.

Set at a breakneck pace, tonally ambitious and hyper-realized, the film feels so real at times, that it comes across as mega-fiction. Like a rapper on a mic, free-styling during a rap battle, the actors follow a script that was in development for almost a decade, yet sling-shot lines and emotions to one another, like they have been doing it their whole lives. Thanks to caliber actors like Lakeith Stanfield, Julia Fox, Idina Menzel, Judd Hirsch, and surprisingly enough, retired NBA player Kevin Garnett, Uncut Gems is a masterclass of coherent gibberish.

Fuelled by the pursuit of a rare Opal, the Safdie brothers craft a hybrid gangster/crime film that stays consistent to their break-out film Good Time, yet has an identity of its own. Maneuvering through the streets and boroughs of NYC, leading audiences through a wild goose chase, the film’s clear cut vision is shot by Darius Khondji with some nauseating yet stellar results. Shot in the same way as all their previous films, the Safdie brother’s signature documentary style lens which totally invades personal space, its the modus operandi of the film; unafraid and unforgiving. Shot by shot, and almost in an idolizing sort of way, which thematically is parallel to the narrative, the film is an expose of consumerism and how it turns into a drug of sorts for people. It shows the disease of constantly striving for that proverbial next level, the inevitable status oriented conversation over coffee and dinner tables by anxious heads of families as they swiftly smoke cigarettes.

In the end, the Safdie brothers hit the audience with the harsh reality that it all doesn’t really mean anything, sending a punch to the face the same way too much popcorn sends a punch to the gut. There are moments when the addiction is so strong for Howard, the pursuit, that even after being heavily harassed and threatened by creditors, he’s still making bets to loan sharks and flipping the bird to collectors.

With Uncut Gems, the depravity is colossal, and the Safdie brothers find decadence in this, as does the audience.

While it becomes clear that Joaquin Phoenix may very well be the front-runner to winning the Best Actor Oscar now that Awards Season is underway, Sandler should be considered for a close second. His perfectly timed blank stare of confusion in the copious moments of chaos throughout the film are perfectly in tune with its styling of setting and story. You hate to love him but you can’t help in doing so. Addicted to the rush of it all, his addiction becomes the audiences fascination. Howard’s rush of uncertainty, much like the narrative itself (you never quite know exactly what the hell is going on nor expect to see what happens next) begins to explode like a firecracker in your hand, personal yet so far from your own realities, hopefully.

Viewing Uncut Gems at its International Premiere has and will always have a profound nostalgia for me. Being a young cinephile who has grown up to the 90’s crime genre, a period in cinema where grit, style and flare carry a film alone, Uncut Gems brought me back to a place I once found familiar. A time where Scorsese picture flooded the screens, a time where the gangsters and mobsters in films still wore suits and carried guns in their suit jacket pockets; a time where greasy hair and smoking guns was the norm. We may not got much of that with this film, and the latter may very well be replaced by the smell of fake NYC leather, tattered diamonds and urban hip-hop culture, but the Safdie brothers provide their NYC signature to a film that may very well be, an origin film towards the future of the modern and urban mobster genre. Without question, Uncut Gems is a gem of a crime picture that glistens.

Night Film Review: 10 Out Of 10 Stars!

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