There is a distinctive visual appeal to Uncut Gems, a film about a garrulous jeweler in the diamond district of New York City who takes one bad risk after another, without calculating the drastic consequences it can and will have upon his life. Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) has furious debt collectors from all angles on his tail, making stern requests for their money giving him tastes of the grave penalties if he doesn’t pay, like elbowing him in the throat, stripping his clothes and locking him inside the trunk of his own car or throwing him in a pond while he wears a suit. While the cinematography, coloring and lighting by veteran French/Iranian director of photography, Darius Khondji (Seven, Panic Room), never ceases to impress, the overall theme of the film and the message it sends is distasteful and forbidding.
Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie, also known as the Safdie Brothers, true cinephiles who’s work on Good Time (2017) with Robert Pattinson earned them critical recognition and now, on Uncut Gems, they bend the rules of cinematography by persuading their cameraman Darius Khondji to photograph the film using unorthodox methods and unconventional lenses for certain scenes. There is a particular sequence in the film that involves the singer The Weeknd, performing as himself in a nightclub lit with blacklight. Howard is eighty-sixed out of the club by the bouncers after he gets into a fight with The Weeknd, catching him with his mistress girlfriend, Julia (Julia Fox) snorting cocaine in the backroom. Her performance in this scene is filled with great passion and her sensational reaction is incredibly genuine as she chases Howard down the city sidewalk at night wearing high heels. The Safdie Brothers convinced Darius Khondji to shoot the scene using a long lens from across the street. “The Safdie’s made me shoot in ways I never have before and it’s very exciting as a cameraman.” Said Khondji. “I’m not used to shooting with long lenses and traditionally frame more around 50mm. Here, 75mm anamorphic was normal and we’d go up to 350mm regularly.” Darius Khondji is referring to the way a long lens makes a distant object appear magnified. Throughout the film’s entirety, scenes that would traditionally be shot in close-ups, where the camera is placed inches away from a characters face, they used long lenses and positioned the camera at distance, resulting in an exclusive look that separates itself from the aesthetic of most films when it comes to the principles of cinematography. Another attention-grabbing concept behind the making of the film is the combination of digital videography and 35mm film and balancing the quality to make it appear leveled within the 1980s vibe the film chronically possessed. “I lived through the ‘80s but never touched the texture in any project before.” Said Darius Khondji.
Right off the bat, we witness two grueling sequences in the film’s opening credits. The first is a broken bone protruding out of a jewel miners leg, which transitions innovatively from a shiny gem of a rock into a colorful universe that leads us into the colon of Howard, laying unconscious on a hospital bed as his Doctor performs a colonoscopy. The opening credits still roll, as we learn so much backstory here about Howard and his chaotic life. Howard enters his jewelry store that sparkles with diamonds and lights practically blinding to the eye. He gets robbed of a watch inside his inner jacket pocket, that doesn’t even belong to him, by an angry debt collector who slaps him across the face for forcefully bringing him a water bottle after it was politely refused. “When I’m shoveling the dirt over your head you’ll see how funny it is.” Says the angry debt collector. Howard is already a walking dead man on the city streets of New York when he calls Arno (Eric Bogosian), leaving him a message on his voicemail to take the twenty grand tag of the watch Arnold’s henchman just stole and deduct it from the one-hundred grand he owes. Anxieties are running high and we’re still in the opening credits.
And if that wasn’t enough to set-up the backstory of Howard the diamond jeweler, then let us discover that he has a mistress girlfriend. As if Howard wasn’t unlikable enough, let’s stir his pot some more and throw in some adultery. The problem with Howard is that he doesn’t care whether or not people like him. The problem with a character like that is, he doesn’t realize one important thing: the audience has to like you. If the audience doesn’t like Howard, that means they really won’t care what happens to him in the end. In the slight chance that they do care, it would have all been in vain.
Howard makes one bad decision after another. After we know he’s now eighty grand in the hole, he still goes to a bookie and places a bet for 24K on an Eastern Conference Semi-Final Playoff game between the Boston Celtics and the Philadelphia 76ers; a real series that occurred in 2012. The remarkable thing here is that the star of that team, the 15-time NBA All-Star and 2008 Finals Champion at Power Forward, Kevin Garnett, a.k.a, KG, makes a strong supportive performance in acting in this film, all the while playing himself. What’s noteworthy is that the Safdie Brothers edited real-life game footage from 2012 and combined it with the photography of Kevin Garnett in 2018 while making this film, which plays an integral part in the overall film’s story, especially the climax.
From his associates to his debt collectors and to his wife, almost everyone hates Howard. The only two people who seem to genuinely love him are his first-born son and his mistress. Except for Kevin Garnett, who grows attached to a million-dollar gem hidden in the mountains of Ethiopia projected to be 110 million years old by Howard’s exaggerations. After refusing its sale, Howard lends the uncut gem that’s still in its rock housing, to KG for the evening as a good luck charm for his big game against the Philly Sixers. Which becomes a principle progressor of the story; KG needs this gem to win the series and Howard needs KG to win by putting everything on the line with parlay bets so that he can gain vast sums of money, get out of debt and get another chance at life. Howard is someone we feel sorry for. Not out of empathy or sympathy, but merely out of pity. The biggest problem with his character, in a cinematic sense, is that there’s no arc. He never learns his lesson. He’s the same person in the end as he was in the beginning. But, having an arc is not the purpose of this movie. This movie explores the disastrous consequences of a man who goes down a dark path of pathological lies, adultery and gambling that results in the inevitable faith that comes with walking down those roads. We see what happens to a man if he doesn’t pay his gambling debts while getting caught in a tangle of lies and deception and cheating on his wife and family.
Nonetheless, the visually appealing aesthetic of its cinematography, the thought-provoking details of the screenplay and the realistic dialogue are definitely the films strengths that provide for a certain degree of entertainment. Without neglecting to mention the first rate acting by Adam Sandler, who steps outside of his traditional comedic element by ingeniously playing everything down without blinking his eyes and moving his facial muscles when explaining blasphemies to other characters, no matter how drastic the situation at hand, or, when he constantly shouts at the top of his lungs with the rapid speech of New York City swagger. His entire performance genuinely represents a character that struggles with severe tribulations which obstruct anything good remaining in his life, ultimately resulting in a distasteful feeling upon the film’s closing curtains.