This article contains major plot spoilers for Uncut Gems.
I’ve had some conversations recently defending my thoughts on 1917, my criticism of its principal character’s weak arc and how I square that with my praise of Howard Ratner’s (Adam Sandler) in Uncut Gems. The conversations tend to follow a similar pattern:
“At least Schofield had an arc, Ratner doesn’t change at all!”
“Yeah, that’s kind of why I liked it…”
And at this point I tend to struggle with finding the words to describe why I feel that way. I suppose I could be reductive and claim that “there’s a big difference between a flat arc and an arc falling flat,” but that isn’t really helpful, is it? It doesn’t explain anything.
When we talk about arcs, we mean the internal change in a character’s worldview, emotional state and values. Typically, these go hand in hand with a movie’s plot because the plot (in a good film) is an extension and representation of the protagonist’s inner struggle. Screenwriters have all sorts of labels like want versus need and the ghost so we can put a handle on the somewhat ambiguous concepts of inner dilemmas, but they boil down essentially to:
- What does the character think they want?
- What do they really need?
- What past experience is haunting them and impacting their decision making, acting as a force they need to overcome?
These are the foundational blocks of character, and they fit nicely into certain kinds of narratives. The narrative Western audiences are probably most familiar with is that of the Hero’s Journey; one that goes from normality, to chaos and back to a new normal after having lived through the chaos. This is the typical outline behind major blockbusters such as Star Wars, and this narrative is generally well liked as they resolve both the plot and the character arc in a way that can feel cathartic. So, when Luke blows up the death star and embraces the force, beginning his journey to become a Jedi, it makes us feel good. We fight an uphill battle with the protagonist as they evolve as people, we understand them, cheer and cry for them. They represent the idea that we can overcome our struggles; grow and better ourselves, and as such they fit this type of film perfectly.
These narratives favour positive arcs, wherein the character changes for the better. That being said, the action-adventure genre is no stranger to flat arcs, wherein the character undergoes little to no internal change, though more often than not these characters are not the protagonist themselves, but the wise old sage who turns the hero onto the righteous path. In Star Wars, Obi Wan has no real arc: he goes places and does important things, but his core values remain steadfast, as his power as a character is in his influence on those around him.
Sage Hyden of Just Write does a great bit of work priming audiences on flat arcs. His key example, Paddington Bear, is completely earnest and kind from the start of the first movie to the end of the sequel. The plot to these films are driven by Paddington’s effect on those around him, often seen through secondary characters’ newfound happiness and acts of self-improvement. These acts are a direct result of the protagonist’s actions.
This is true for nearly all flat arching protagonists; Hyden’s other examples include Back to the Future’s Marty McFly who convinces his father to stand up for himself in the past to save their family from humiliation in the future, and Gladiator’s Maximus whose tragic story of loss and bravery convinces slavery profiteer Proximo to lay down his life for a worthy cause.
This is what I like about flat arcs – the character is the theme. Paddington the film is endearing, earnest and warm because Paddington the character is endearing, earnest and warm. Back to the Future embodies McFly’s relatability and Gladiator is imbued with Maximus’ noble bravery and tragedy. But what if the character doesn’t exude kindness or bravery? What if they’re selfish, misguided – entertaining but wrong?
The plot of Uncut Gems is a beautiful mess, twisting and turning as warring factions scheme and scuffle over a Black Opal gemstone, but this isn’t what Uncut Gems is about. It’s about the gambling addiction of its protagonist Howard Ratner, and the tragedy of addictions like his. Throughout the film’s run-time we see Ratner push his closest friends away – after taking delivery of the Black Opal his long-time colleague quits in an emotional plea to the jeweller’s decency, but Ratner – elbow deep in fish – pays him no attention. His marriage and family life are similarly corrupted. Ratner is both half-married and half-divorced from his wife, has a girlfriend on the side, and is largely distant with his child, more interested in following a game of basketball on his phone than putting his son to bed.
If this were a traditional story with a conventional arc, Ratner is excellently positioned for an Ebenezer Scrooge evolution. We might see him begin as this compulsive gambler, likely risking more and more until he reaches a point where he loses everything. We would then see him take stock of his life and realise what is really important to him before building to a satisfying climax that resolves both character and plot.
Instead we get… You know… Not that. Ratner’s addiction instead fuels the plot to its inevitable conclusion. Whereas in most films the protagonist is locked into a conflict unwillingly with no (moral) opportunity to back out until the story is resolved, Uncut Gems offers Ratner an easy way out of his problems time and time again.
He owes money to Arno (Eric Bogosian) and his goons, something in the order of $100,000. Though this may seem like a lot of money initially, to Ratner, it isn’t. In the first few scenes, we see him pawn a chain worth a quarter of that sum only to spend the money gambling on basketball. The coveted Black Opal itself would repay Ratner’s debt and then some after basketball player Kevin Garnett offers to buy it in the first act, but Ratner refuses, falsely believing it will net him over a million at auction.
After the gem is accurately evaluated and Ratner discovers its true value is far less than he had anticipated, he tries to push Garnett into spending more than the rock is worth by gradually outbidding him through a proxy at auction, even after the bid has raised significantly higher than it’s worth. This backfires as Garnett pulls out of the bid forcing Ratner to foot the bill himself.
Finally, Garnett buys the gem from Ratner privately for $165,000 – disappointing for the Jeweller but enough to pay off his debt and go home with money in his pocket. Of course, he can’t help betting every cent of this on the basketball as well, kicking the final act into gear when everything could have been resolved on at least two occasions at that point.
Miraculously, Ratner’s gamble seems to pay off with everything lining up and a seven-figure pay out as good as his. With Arno and his goons trapped in a plexiglass cell between two security doors watching Ratner’s madness and elation as the game unfolds in his favour, Arno begins to believe, even rejoice at his success. Howard and Julia (Julia Fox) call each other in celebration as fans and media flow onto the basketball court – a mad, frenzied victory… Then one of Arno’s men shoots Ratner and his boss point blank and robs the store.
Uncut Gems, after leaving the audience wrought with anxiety and questioning Ratner for the entire movie, dangles the possibility of success in front of us. We feel like a gambler in a Vegas casino, a couple thousand in the hole as the roulette wheel looks bound to land on our number and put us back on top, until, inexplicably, it doesn’t. We feel like Howard Ratner.
By projecting the film through Howard’s flawed character rather than projecting Howard onto the film, we are incredibly connected to this objectively terrible guy.
Aside from everything else, flat arcs that trend toward the darker side of humanity (e.g. Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler) provide a nuanced and poignant take on stories that we don’t get to see very often in popular cinema. As fun as it is to imagine ourselves in an exciting series of events and to find ourselves changed for the better on the other side, people don’t work that way. Flat arcs highlight the stubbornness of peoples’ characters and how difficult progress can really be, which might not be everybody’s idea of a good time but for those who enjoy realism and raw human characters it can be a deeply moving thing to witness.
Uncut Gems is one of the fresher bits of cinema to be released in recent years, not to mention confirming to the world my long-held assertion that Sandler is a phenomenal actor who just decided he could make more money and have more fun making cheesy films with his friends. However, if you feel unsatisfied with the film’s uncathartic end, I would genuinely recommend re-watching the film should you have the time or desire. This isn’t me trying to convert anybody to the Church of the Sandman or anything like that – if you genuinely dislike the film then you’re completely valid, but I think in watching Uncut Gems not as a conventional piece of cinema but as an ancient tragedy of sorts, in the same vein as the stories of King Midas or Achilles, and it might just leave you feeling the shock and awe I felt as Gigi D’Agostino’s L’Amour Toujours played over the end credits.
This is why I preferred Howard’s arc over Schofield’s in 1917. The latter seemed superficial and rather cliché, washing over me as soon as I left the theatre – it exists because of the plot rather than visa-versa. However, Howard is the plot, he is the theme, we are drawn less into his world as we are into him. That, to me, is what makes a great character.