Uncut Gems: dizzying and breathtaking cinema

Uncut Gems—the fourth feature film directed by brothers Josh and Benny Safdie—is an exhausting tale of gambling, jewels and loan sharks, and gives the audience very few opportunities to catch their breath during its runtime of over two hours, which flies by at breakneck speed.

Jewelry store manager and gambling addict Howard Ratner (played by Adam Sandler, in a career-best performance) is a chaotic human catherine-wheel. He lies, cheats and takes advantage of people however the audience can’t help but care for his plight, and much of this is down to Sandler’s performance, as well as the Safdie brothers’ authentic writing. Spending the vast majority of the film with Howard is exhausting for the audience as we witness his bad decisions, constant scheming and the chaos which accompanies every scene. Howard is never satisfied and constantly wants more, even though he doesn’t necessarily know what that “more” is. Although he is clearly driven by money, Howard can be considered as a twisted version of the American Dream, and gets even more thrill from the gamble than the winning. This is evident from a scene in which he decides not to accept a generous offer for the precious black opal from NBA star Kevin Garnett (appearing brilliantly as himself), instead deciding to sell it at auction, which of course backfires.

With every feature, short film and music video the Safdie brothers have made, they have been able to stretch their obvious talents further. Working with a considerably higher budget ($19m this time) than their previous feature—the equally impressive Good Time (2017)Uncut Gems has enabled the Safdie brothers to showcase their ability to create anxiety-inducing cinema. Working alongside highly respected cinematography Darius Khondji, Uncut Gems features a garish aesthetic of neon and artificial lighting which replicates the array of bright colors visible within the precious opal at the centre of the film’s narrative. Claustrophobia is created in the jewelry store with shots framing characters exclusively in close-up or medium close-up. These scenes are quite nauseating with whip-pans, characters shouting, security doors beeping and jump cuts all causing the audience to feel like a punch-drunk boxer on the ropes. Uncut Gems is a visceral piece of cinema which works as both sheer entertainment and a showcase for the Safdie brothers’ immense filmmaking talents. Ultimately, this film is one not to be missed at any cost.


Phil Hobbins-White

Film Studies teacher and freelance film and television writer. My MA in Film (2016) dissertation focused on film festivals and independent filmmaking. My MA in Media (2011) dissertation focused on gender in contemporary horror films. My other main research interests include post-9/11 U.S. war films, feminist film theory, and debates around film exhibition.

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