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Film Friday Essay

On “Uncut Gems.”

That Uncut Gems is first-person, present-tense, active-voice cinema shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who’s seen Heaven Knows What or Good Time, the Safdie brothers’ last two films: but what should be surprising, or at least is to me, is the plantiveness of their newest. It’s most obviously detectable in the score, by Daniel Lopatin, which, between rounds of pounding drums, lithe beeps, soaring electronica, and resounding choral phrases, occasionally slows down and focuses on one theme, one mirroring the mood of the film’s protagonist. Uncut Gems is the delicious trap of one man’s series of stacked miseries: the man in question in possession of a seemingly unbreachable compulsiveness matched only by his determination to triumph.

That man is Howard— “Howie”—Ratner (Adam Sandler), a dealer in New York’s diamond district. Howie is a compulsive gambler, running in circles of pawning, placing another bet, hoping to assuage his debtor until he can scramble enough to get to the next bet—like Harvey Keitel’s drug-addicted cop in Bad Lieutenant. This enrages one of those debtors, incidentally his brother-in-law, Arno (Eric Bogosian), who sends a couple of heavies to extract what they can from him. He owes Arno at least $100,000, and others will come calling as the film moves its unmerry way onwards. He’s sharing an apartment and in a relationship with Julia (Julia Fox), a club-hopping twenty-something who works for him in the shop, but whose side-gig involves photographing up-and-coming artists in New York’s social scene. This doesn’t seem to be concealed from his soon to be ex-wife (with whom he has three children), Dinah (Idina Menzel), an icy presence, whose every look at him speaks volumes about the amount of patience-testing he’s put her through, so now every moment between them is a prolonged exasperation. Howie is introduced mid-colonoscopy, which is transitioned to from the light-show within the black opal, a gem picked from an Ethiopian mine that will come to dominate the film’s narrative. The transition is an effective—and effectively true—joke. It’s as if Howie is pulling the opal out from the same place he usually gets the ideas for his hare-brained money-making schemes: out of his arse.

His showroom, secured by two doors between an antechamber apt to malfunction, is bedecked with garish jewellery, possibly pawned watches, and hundreds of other odd trinkets, most eye-catchingly the furbies, small but big-eared creatures encrusted with diamonds, with eyes that swivel from side to side. These items end up adorning the fingers and earlobes of basketball players and the walls of their houses; end up on the wrists and necks of rappers, becoming visual details in their music videos and accessories for club appearances. Howie’s link to new money is Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), whose job is to accompany young stars in their field to the showroom in return for a percentage of the takings. One day, Demany brings Boston Celtics star Kevin Garnett (your actual Kevin Garnett) to Howie’s business. As Garnett looks around, a package comes for Howie: it’s the opal, hidden in the stomach of a fish. It’s set for auction, and he hopes it’ll make him a millionaire; and yet he can’t help but display it, bringing it out to show Garnett. The player is immediately transfixed by the gem, and whether its workings are totemic or apotropaic, Garnett is determined to take it with him for game night. It might transpire that this wasn’t a good idea.

Just as so much of Good Time was reliant on the control of Robert Pattinson’s performance, with its sympathy-mangling antics and sweaty desperation, so much of Uncut Gems is down to Sandler, the evocative outsizedness of his performance, and the way it uses and reverses some notable aspects of his star-persona. I’m not by nature a massive Sandler person: I like him in those exceptions to the rule, the obvious ones, the films it’s not helpful to mention, namely Punch-Drunk Love and The Meyerowitz Stories. But only referring to these two would flatten out one of the most pleasurable parts of this film and his performance in it. In Sandler’s work generally, he plays frustrated people, men (man-children: he’s cinema’s man-child-in-chief) who can barely repress the urge to scream and rail against the authority-figure in his way. The Safdies use this rage to create Howie, and in doing so the directors sophisticate the star-text. (Because Sandler’s films contain many a spurious invocation of “family” as a life-saving tool, a moment in which Howie tries and fails to talk to his teenage daughter is especially agonising.)

The directors imbue him a specific identity. Howie is Jewish, and his Jewishness is in every corner of the film: Uncut Gems is set during Pesach, and one scene details a family visit to his father-in-law’s house for this purpose; the opal is purchased from a tribe of Ethiopian Jews Howie discovered while “trying to learn shit” watching the History Channel; one conversation with Demany ends with Howie’s recitation of the fact that the first point scored in the NBA was by a Jewish player; when attending a school play, a fellow parent asks why the family won’t be doing anything over the holidays: Howie responds by claiming the family are going to “go to Europe” next year, a trip with connotations for members of the Jewish diaspora; and many of his colleagues in the diamond district are Jewish. But where Uncut Gems fascinates me is in the intersection of Howie’s assumed selfhood, between his Jewish identity and a performative exterior formed by proximity to new money: it’s visible in his teeth, just a tad too bleached; his beard, just a bit too trimmed; his clothing, gaudy and colour-clashing designer arrangements; but most impressively, it’s in his vocal work, the slow, drawn-out line readings, suggesting that he might not have grown up speaking English, and in his diction, stuffed with phrases to endear him to his clientele (“Yo, I started this shit,” or, when pawning Garnett’s Boston Celtics ring, Howie’s collateral for the opal, he shows the pawnbroker his Instagram with Garnett, claiming that his account is “blowin’ up right now”).

Howie’s relationship with Julia is, in a film easily but truthfully characterised by frantic panic, delightful. Despite the approximate sugar-daughter sugar-daddy aspect to their romance, the pair are evidently besotted with each other. They are a pair of sweet, loving doofuses, whose mutual adoration is complicated by a scene set in a nightclub in which Howie is trying to meet Demany and regain the opal from Garnett, but he spies Julia among the entourage of the act performing, The Weeknd. He accuses her of cheating with the then (the film is set in 2012) up-and-coming musician, and instructs her to leave their apartment. When he goes to make sure she’s gone, Sandler’s way of walking around the space articulates exactly the way he feels for her. He walks slowly, taking steps that linger, making too many final glances: the hope that she hasn’t left is written into his body.

The Safdies are directors who work at street level, which is true of both their casting process and the locations on which they decide to shoot. By this point in their career, the pair are extremely dexterous at blending professional and non-professional actors into their narratives, most notably with Arielle Holmes, the subject of and inspiration for Heaven Knows What; a fact more pronounced in Good Time as Buddy Duress (also in Heaven Knows What) shares a number of scenes with Robert Pattinson: the already loose fidelity between the two characters, as expressed through the competing energies of the actors, produces an indelible exothermic cinematic reaction. For Uncut Gems, despite the bigger budget (Tilda Swinton and Natasha Lyonne have small voice parts, Garnett and The Weeknd play themselves), the directors have continued this trend. Fox was found in the New York club scene, and a number of smaller roles are filled by players the directors met and thought would fit the part in question. My favourite is Steve (Marshall Greenberg), a jeweller who pawns items for Howie: as he comes back for the Celtics ring, Steve wonders why his pal is acting so erratically. He calls him “Bubby,” and, a rare thing among the men in the movie, shows him affection.

The cinematography, by Darius Khondji, favours close-ups, leaning into performances in order to catch unexpected emphases, to enlarge the audience’s perception of Howie’s discomfort. The screen is awash in neon reds and blues and greens splayed across glassy textures, which finds a visual counterpoint (and exaggeration) in the opal itself and its shimmering refractions. The camera movement is rhythmically and sometimes contrapuntally choreographed, panning and spinning and tracking with exhausting frequency (the first scene in which the door malfunctions is exemplary, the gliding and whip-panning seeming to mock the men trapped behind the glass, unable to move themselves). The propellant force of the film’s images is helped along their way by the editing, which is by Ronald Bronstein and Benny Safdie: they have a bountiful skill for isolating, just as Lopatin’s score unleashes itself, single parts of scenes at their most expressive. This is complemented in turn by an assaultive sound design, typified by the habit of characters to speak over each other, Robert Altman-style, on top of the constant sounds of buzzing and crashing: it places viewers directly into Howie’s rattled experience of the world. (The refrain of “what the fuck is going on?” is more than apropos.)

The Safdies are expert scenarists (like John Cassavetes, whose example the pair are indebted to, and this film does share some identifying marks with The Killing of a Chinese Bookie), and the way the directors make the various concerns of the text play out in concert is a thing of joy. I’m finding it hard to pick only a couple of examples. The auction scene, after Howie has finally delivered the gem to the auctioneer, with Garnett still in pursuit of it, is constructed with an intuitive understanding of how to build and hold tension, and how to draw comedy out of the process. Or, just after the auction, a confrontation with Arno and his goons that ends with one of the best shots of the film: Howie, exiting a fountain into which he’s been thrown, climbs up on the marble ledge, looking for his glasses. The shot holds for a second longer than expected: it expresses how Howie continues to rise despite everyone’s attempts to aid gravity. But the best scene in the film, and perhaps one of my favourites in recent years, is the scene in which Garnett finally purchases the opal.

In the back office of the showroom, Garnett confronts Howie about his prevarications, his seeming deceitfulness, his own game-playing. A transaction takes place, but Garnett asks a question. He asks how much Howie paid for the opal. Howie won’t answer at first. But he begins explaining himself. It’s the exact reverse of a moment from Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker. He answers that his urge to make money is like Garnett’s desire to win the NBA finals. Something is changing. Lopatin’s score starts to flare and churn and beat. Garnett, whose performance is one of the film’s most surprising and pleasing parts, looks at Howie in a mixture of intrigue and disbelief: he turns his head to the side twice, narrowing his eyes as if to say “what are you fucking talking about?” as well as “but please don’t stop.” The way the scene has modulated from resolution to creating even greater stakes is indescribable. The audible groans and observable shifting in seats of many audience members in both screenings of the film I’ve attended are exactly right. The film is gearing up for one last push, one last flurry of activity: one last bet, one last demonstration of Howie’s speculative genius.

I won’t say anything about the concluding fifteen minutes, except that there’s a reach towards the cosmic I find wholly misconceived, and frankly a bit of an affectation. I’m more interested in those small moments of conclusiveness: A small gesture, a camera movement, a close-up. A shot of Demany, in which the camera revolves around him as he comes to a realisation about his boss; a quick close-up of a pair of hands enjoined; a trio of shots locating and specifying one gesture, the way a character nods slightly while glaring, their lips moving as if they’re grinding their teeth behind them, coming to a decision about someone’s fate. Tiny instances, perhaps, but they tell me much of what I need to know about the Safdies’ cinema.

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