If the Safdie brothers’ 2017 feature Good Time was akin to drinking a triple shot espresso, their latest film Uncut Gems is like mainlining pure adrenaline for the entirety of its 134-minute runtime. It’s a disorientating, sensory overload which picks up the audience and hurls them through a kaleidoscope of thumping sound and gaudy visuals. Indie filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie bring out a magnificent, career-best performance from Adam Sandler as the central wheeler-dealer in one of the tensest films of the decade.
Set in 2012, Uncut Gems follows quick-witted New York City jeweller Howard Ratner (Sandler) who lives a frantic lifestyle juggling his jewellery shop business and failing marriage against a gambling addiction and an array of get-rich-quick schemes. He also spends his days evading debt collectors to whom he owes thousands of dollars and maintaining an affair with his young employee Julia (Julia Fox, making a fantastic debut). Howard senses an escape from this exhausting grind in the form of an unrefined opal-encrusted rock which he’s purchased from an Ethiopian mine and plans to flog for millions. But when NBA superstar Kevin Garnett (keenly playing himself) takes an interest in the opal, it kick-starts a sequence of bad decisions, disastrous mishaps and go for broke bets.
Uncut Gems is an absolute masterclass in anxiety-inducing filmmaking, so much so it should probably come with a health warning. The mesmerising, relentlessly noisy sound design is filled with a constant barrage of voices yelling over the top of each other as deals are made and jewellery flogged. While some may find the discord of the sound design off-putting, it perfectly captures the pandemonium of Howard’s everyday life and is expertly mixed, so important exchanges always remain audible. Electronic musician Oneohtrix Point Never, who also worked on Good Time, constructs a pounding, synthy and pulse-racing score which brilliantly melds with the chaos on-screen. Darius Khonji’s slick cinematography glides round the action skilfully, capturing every disorderly moment with flair.
The script, penned by the Safdies along with regular collaborator Ronald Bronstein, superbly balances the intensity and hilarity of the film. One scene, where Howard is juggling multiple phone calls along with the arrival of Garnett and multiple debt collectors at his showroom, is a brilliantly orchestrated scene of excruciating stress and manic comedy. Sandler completely thrives in this tragicomic dynamic with a riveting, hilarious and charismatic performance. The Safdie brothers clearly have a talent for creating engaging, complex characters but it’s Sandler’s fast-talking, hot-headed yet vulnerable turn which makes this schemer so authentic and relatable. His multifaceted performance slowly wins you over and by the film’s conclusion, we are as invested and enthralled as he is during the climatic high-stakes gamble.
The Safdie brothers have composed a heart-pounding, nerve-shredding, deceptively funny masterpiece with a compelling, all-time best performance from Sandler. Uncut Gems is a truly electrifying trip which should catapult the Safdie brothers into the mainstream as experts of high-octane cinema.