2019 NEW HAMPSHIRE FILM FESTIVAL: We wrapped up the second evening of the festival with Benny and Josh Safdie’s “Uncut Gems.” With their latest entry, The Safdie Brothers’ anxiety-inducing style of storytelling is once again on full display. Those who have seen their other recent work, most notably “Good Time” starring Robert Pattinson, know what to expect heading in. For those that are less familiar, may I suggest popping a Xanax and investing in a seat-belt before diving in?
In “Uncut Gems,” Adam Sandler gives a career-best performance playing fast-talking Howard Ratner, a neurotic New York City jeweler in over his head with high-stakes gambling debts. Despite his large deficit — most of which is owed to the Jewish mob — he is a risk addict who continues to dream of the big score. The more Ratner tries to pull himself out, the deeper the hole he digs for himself. This is the essence of his character — he seems to revel in the increasingly dicey situations he gets himself into, with the way out always frustratingly within view.
As a result of all the various turmoils Ratner is in and the breakneck tempo of the film (which is pristinely edited by Benny Safdie and frequent collaborator Ronald Bronstein), the narrative of “Uncut Gems” is oftentimes perplexing and abstruse, though you never really lose sight of what is happening. It moves like greased lightning. From a half-loaded backstory involving a rare Ethiopian opal, to the pawning of Kevin Garnett’s 2008 NBA Championship ring, to the rise of hip-hop sensation The Weeknd, there is a lot to wrap your head around and very little time to do so before you are on to Ratner’s next stumbling block.
Things are only complicated further by the relationship with his soon-to-be-ex-wife (played viciously by Idina Menzel) and his shameless mistress (an astronomical breakout from Julia Fox). How Ratner ping pongs back and forth between his life with the former in their suburban mansion and the future he plans with the latter in their uptown apartment are a reflection of the lack of rest Ratner allows himself.
It’s as if “Uncut Gems” was written in the midst of a fever dream, and we are all awake and engrossed in this alluring little nightmare.
Oscar winner Skip Lievsay (“Gravity”) and Anton Gold‘s impeccable sound mix is extraordinary and almost takes on its own character in the film. Between the continual yelling, blaring music, and heart-thumping tones that match the sleek visuals, the stress that overcomes Ratner mounts in the audience as well. This is why “Uncut Gems” is so compelling. Howard Ratner is the car crash that requires us to rubberneck as we drive past. We just can’t look away.
“Uncut Gems” is a stylish thrill ride ferociously paced like a bat out of hell, as one would expect from the filmmakers that brought us “Good Time.” It never stops moving. The pressure builds to a simmering finale, and the runoff is an exhausting jewel of a film. As “Uncut Gems” wrapped, I wasn’t sure where I stood on it. I was just drained to my core. But like so many other great films, this is one that really settles well if you give it the time to permeate.
Gritty, tenacious, chaotic, and manic as hell, “Uncut Gems” is a vigorous and electrifying midnight panic attack that burrows layers and layers under your skin. It is The Safdie Brother’s most accomplished film to date, with an Oscar-worthy performance from Sandler, and a career-making turn from Fox.