Uncut Gems review – a masterpiece of sustained tension

Adam Sandler has never been better than in this anxiety-inducing slice of New York pulp from the Safdie brothers

First there was Punch-Drunk Love, and now there is Uncut Gems, yet further proof that Adam Sandler can be truly magnetic when paired with a director who understands how to harness his unique appeal. In this case, there are two: Uncut Gems is written and directed by the Safdie brothers, a Jewish-American filmmaking duo whose string of increasingly brilliant New York-set films eschew the famous landmarks in favour of the city’s sleazier pockets.

As with their similarly sweat-inducing crime caper Good Time, this grimy thriller unravels as a masterclass in sustained tension – a celluloid panic attack that refuses to let up from minute one. It’s a movie shot in 2019, set in 2012, with a distinct 1970s vibe: one look at its John Carpenter-inspired opening credits and you know these boys have an affinity for the best kind of pulp fiction.

Whether they’re trying to get rich quick or simply trying to survive, Safdie heroes have a tendency to bite off way more than they can chew: Howard Ratner (Sandler), a Jewish bling dealer working out of New York’s Diamond District and an obsessive gambler whose professional and personal life is in a constant state of chaos as though by design, is no different. He’s low on cash but big on ideas – namely the one that involves selling a uncut black opal at auction for the sum of $1 million. It should be simple, but an unexpected encounter with real-life basketball player Kevin Garnett results in the opal going AWOL. Instantly enamoured with its glistening depths, Garnett loans the rock for good luck and fails to return it in time for auction. Loan sharks closing in, Howard has no choice but to reclaim the gems, all the time juggling family gatherings and indulging his self-destructive impulses with more schemes and bets.

So skilled in wringing every drop of tension from their premise, the Safdies push a manic plot that unfolds with the randomness of real life. Small incidents cause ripple effects across the entire movie and the narrative takes on a brilliantly spontaneous feel as a result – especially as it upends and toys with our expectations, like in scenes shared between Howard and his mistress (Julia Fox, amazing in her debut performance), which never play out how you expect.

At the centre of this madness is Sandler’s mesmerising performance as a man whose estranged wife (Idina Menzel) at one point tells him: “I think you are the most annoying person I have ever met.” You get her position, but Sandler’s gift is to make Howard infuriating but never truly unlikeable; the script (co-written with editor Ronald Bronstein) allows the fast-talking jeweller to show just enough vulnerability (a terrible choice is eased by a failed attempt to bond with his child) that we want him to succeed in spite of his tendency to fuck up on a second-by-second basis.

Darius Khondji’s woozy cinematography keys us into Howard’s unstoppable trainwreck of a life. Overlapping conversations and relentless street noise further fuel the sense of panic. By some miracle the Safdies train us to feel Howard’s unfounded optimism – we’re rooting for him as the film builds to what feels like a natural breaking point. Yet as multiple storylines converge last-minute, it turns out the most gut-wrenching scenes are still to come. The final stretch of Uncut Gems is almost unbearable to sit through, the definition of forget-to-breathe filmmaking, and an uncompromising reminder of cinema’s power to shred your nerves in unexpected ways. To walk out of the experience is to feel exhausted, blind-sided, and completely exhilarated. One notion lingers above the rest: still in their mid-thirties, the Safdies have made their first masterpiece. You’d bet heavily that it won’t be their last.

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