This article contains spoilers for Uncut Gems.
The type of world-building the Safdie brothers employ in their films is uncommon for most gritty, slice-of-life dramas, but their work has always taken place in a slightly fantastical realm. Josh Safdie’s feature debut The Pleasure of Being Robbed ends with a surreal encounter with a polar bear, while their first feature as a duo, Daddy Longlegs, contains a Cronenbergian sequence of body horror in which a man brutally beats a giant mosquito to death.
Uncut Gems, their latest film, extends the brief glimpses of magical realism seen in their previous work and makes it one of the plot’s main driving forces. The film concerns a (possibly) magical opal, one that showers an abundance of good fortune upon anyone who possesses it, but consequently dooms them once they’re without it.
In their 2017 film Good Time, a Sprite bottle containing LSD left at an abandoned amusement park is practically treated as a holy object, something everyone is after without quite being able to articulate why. To those who aren’t looking closely, it’s an ordinary Sprite bottle. The same can be said of the opal in Uncut Gems, which offers each person who glimpses into it a vision of the future and the past inside its infinite depths. But looking at it from the outside, it’s just a rock.
This promise concealed inside the gem is just what makes the film so incredibly nerve-wracking, as it gives compulsive diamond dealer Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) a scapegoat for his misguided decisions. By now, it’s no secret just how agonizingly stressful Uncut Gems gets at points, as it feels constantly on the verge of some kind of apocalypse. It seems as though Howard makes nothing but poor choices throughout the film’s runtime, with the ones that don’t backfire serving as a cautionary tale to quit while one’s ahead.
Against all odds, this focus on magical realism renders Uncut Gems as deeply empathetic as any of the Safdies’ previous work. The duo excels at creating memorable characters who are utterly loathsome one moment and strangely charismatic the next, and Howard is no exception.
Daddy Longlegs exemplifies these complex characters best, showing both the deep affection divorced dad Lenny (Ronald Bronstein) has for his kids and also his complete incompetence at taking care of them. Good Time takes the opposite angle, with Connie (Robert Pattinson) committing violent and cruel crimes out of love for his brother.
Of the two, Howard Ratner lies much closer to Pattinson’s Connie. He is loud, annoying, pathetic, impatient, misogynistic, and all-around unpleasant. Yet when he or someone he knows possesses the rock, it’s difficult to deny that his conviction that he’s going to hit it big on his next bet has a strange, sinister charm to it. In those moments, everything else fades into the background for Howard. The debt collectors, his tumultuous marriage, everything.
This all-encompassing empathy is possible because of the Safdies’ immersive world-building and their skill at fleshing out characters who could just as easily be one-dimensional or serve a background role. There’s no such thing as a nobody in a Safdie brothers film.
With each face that wanders in frame in Uncut Gems, whether it’s the incredibly charismatic Kevin Garnett (playing himself) or a background goon, it feels as though at any moment the film could shift focus to someone else entirely, that it could go on to tell a million more stories about these characters and this strange, specific world they occupy.
Part of the work in creating the world of Uncut Gems is done for them by real events. The film takes place during the 2012 NBA Playoffs and depicts some of the postseason’s own miniature narratives: the end of the Celtics as a dynasty, Lebron James’ lack of a ring, and Garnett’s own inconsistent performances across the games.
The rest of the film’s period detail is commendable, both with regards to the music of the time and the technology. 2012 may not instantly conjure a certain aesthetic the way certain other years do, but it’s impressive just how much the Safdies get right, right down to the last detail. Rising stars of the time such as The Weeknd appear, while future one-hit wonders Trinidad James and Ca$h Out make cameos as well. Older versions of apps and obsolete phone software serve as reminders that, despite significant advances in technology before and since, Howard’s errors remain deeply, fatally human in nature.
The Safdies’ penchant for magical realism takes another interesting angle in Uncut Gems through this commitment to period detail. Throughout the film, the filmmakers examine the advent of smartphones and social media, two technologies that haven’t fully translated successfully to film yet, that were both still relatively new at the time.
It’s unlikely that smartphones will ever be able to match the cinematic flair that comes with slamming a flip phone shut à la The Departed, but Sandler’s work with the iPhone 4 comes close. Whether he’s awkwardly paused in the street sending a picture while hunched over, showing Kevin Garnett a YouTube video, or angrily texting in a completely inappropriate setting (i.e., his daughter’s school play), Sandler gets considerable mileage out of the device to hilarious (and occasionally off-putting) effect.
One of the film’s most striking moments, one that’s at first hilarious and then severely uncomfortable, showcases this awkward relationship with screens perfectly. After being lectured by his soon-to-be-ex wife for watching a basketball game instead of tucking his son into bed, Howard lies down on the floor of his sleeping child’s bedroom and watches the same game on his phone with headphones in, hooting and hollering along at a whisper.
This brief scene, and his clumsy use of various types of technology throughout, tells you everything there is to know about Howard – that he is not just somewhat out of touch with the modern world, but essentially exists in a separate reality from those around him. Sandler and the Safdies are able to wring so much characterization from just a single blink-and-you’ll-miss-it text about autocorrect, instantly turning Howard into a type of person, someone everyone has met some version of before.
This lapse in communication is best symbolized in the film’s minimalist, nail-biting final sequence. After handing off money to his mistress Julia (Julia Fox) to place a ludicrous bet on Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, Howard refuses to let the people he owes into his shop or out of it, effectively locking them in the glass security area outside the door.
Through the glass wall, the collectors threaten and demand pay from him, and it instantly becomes clear that, behind that glass wall, Howard is living in a different world. Even when held at gunpoint, he continues to rant and rave about how the Philadelphia 76ers shouldn’t have made it to the Eastern Conference Finals in the first place. It would be funny if it weren’t so pathetically sad.
So much of Uncut Gems occurs on screens, from the monitor showing Ratner’s colonoscopy results in the film’s opening, to practically all of the basketball showcased in the film. Cinematographer Darius Khondiji’s most memorable images in the film come at the intersection of people and screens, with a shot of Sandler’s looming silhouette in the center of a screen showing the pivotal Celtics – Sixers game standing out the most. By the film’s final sequence, a screen renders Garnett a towering, mythical figure, while Howard tragically lies bleeding on the floor, stuck in the real world.
By deliberately avoiding attempts to cinematically render the latest technologies, “Uncut Gems” shows us a world in transition, a changing of the guard between analog and digital, between NBA legends like Kevin Garnett and relative newcomers like Kevin Durant.
What makes Uncut Gems’ 2012 setting so rich and rewarding is that the film could still exist without it, unlike, say, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood being set in a year other than 1969. It’s easy to imagine a version of the film set in the present day, with a fictional NBA player in place of Garnett.
Instead, the Safdies’ wisely choose to capture an incredibly specific moment in time, to tell a dark fantasy based in reality by superimposing the tragic end of Howard Ratner over the highs and lows of Kevin Garnett’s 2012 playoffs. Despite its disappointing lack of awards recognition, Uncut Gems is an incredibly rich text that will likely be infinitely rewarding for years to come. All you have to do is look closely.