As the credits started to roll on “Uncut Gems,” the new Adam Sandler film written and directed by the Safdie brothers (Ronald Bronstein also has a writing credit), I checked my pulse. That is not hyperbole. My watch monitors my pulse and I checked the watch to see what it said.
You see, people describe movies as “pulse-pounding” and “non-stop” and “edge of your seat thrilling,” but all too often that’s just a bunch of words, not an actual feeling. With “Uncut Gems,” I can tell you that my pulse was not terribly elevated, but I believed that it very well might be.
The film is the story of Jewish man, Howard Ratner (Sandler), working in the diamond district in New York City and just completely and totally falling apart. His wife, Dinah (Idina Menzel), hates him. His mistress, Julia (Julia Fox), drives him crazy. Kevin Garnett (played by himself) won’t return a borrowed opal. He owes a bookie, Arny (Eric Bogosian) some very big gambling debts, and Arny has begun to send tough guys to collect. One of his business partners, Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), continually lies to him about what is happening and ditches him at random moments. And, while terrible things happen to Howard, so many of his problems are of his own making… and he unquestionably creates entirely different problems for those around him.
This movie is nearly two hours and 15 minutes of watching Howard lurch from one crisis to the next, barely keeping his head above water as he goes. Sandler is phenomenal in the part. He adds a manic energy to Howard’s problems that help propel the entire thing forward. As Howard ping-pongs from crisis to crisis, Sandler makes it plausible and heartbreaking and (at times) hysterically funny. It is a genuinely outstanding performance from an actor who all too often doesn’t show such depth.
And as much as I want to deliver kudos to everyone else in the cast, I have already gone too long without mentioning the music (from Daniel Lopatin), sound design (Warren Shaw is the supervising sound editor), and the camera work (Darius Khondji). The audio is a cacophony in the best sort of way. The vast majority of the film is full of enough auditory cues to make one as crazy as Howard. It is a nearly constant barrage of noise, whether it’s people talking over each other, background sound, or music. It just keeps going and going, so that when there is quiet, when the audience can stop and take a breath, it is absolutely essential that they do so. The sound takes over the movie, grabs the viewer, and just keeps hold of them.
The camera functions alongside the audio, keeping the viewer close in with Sandler so often that you can practically smell his aftershave and sweat. We are trapped there with him at every moment, good and bad, high and low.
“Uncut Gems” is an example of perfect synergy—not from the outside affecting the movie, not some sort of corporate synergy—of every element within the film interacting in the best possible fashion with every other element to make something greater. There’s Sandler’s manic performance which draws in the viewer, then the camera forces people even closer, then the soundtrack causes them to strain their ears to hear and understand what Howard is doing. Finally, the supporting performances (Judd Hirsch also appears), build an even more complex understanding of how Howard got to this point. It is one bit stacked onto the next and then onto the next, so that the audience grabs hold of Howard at the film’s outset and doesn’t let go for the length of the ride.
Do we love Howard? We do, but we hate him at the same time. The Safdies have given us a man who can’t stop himself, can’t control himself, but who still, somehow, seems to have a good heart and is just in so far over his head he can no longer see the surface.
Your pulse may not actually be elevated when the credits roll, but you very well may have a new understanding of what it is to make a powerful film.
“Uncut Gems” is the true might of filmmaking unleashed.
photo credit: A24 Films