”Ever since they were kids, Josh and Benny Safdie have shot films guerilla-style, the better to catch the rhythms of the New York streets. They founded Red Bucket Films, where they experimented with real subjects in a blend of “actual” and staged scenarios in order to create a style that went beyond the conventions of commercial filmmaking. In 2009, their second feature (following The Pleasure of Being Robbed) was Daddy Longlegs. Frequent collaborator Ronald Bronstein played a loving but irresponsible single dad, an actor raising two small boys in New York City (Sage and Frey Ranaldo, the sons of Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo). Their next two films pushed the streetwise aesthetic even further. Heaven Knows What (Arts Fuse review) starred Arielle Holmes in a distressing story based on her own experience as a homeless addict. That commitment to reality drew the attention of Robert Pattinson, who starred in 2017’s Good Time. Pattinson plays Connie Nikas, who attempts to rob a bank with his mentally challenged brother Nick. When Nick is jailed, Connie struggles to raise bail. The story devolves into a tragicomic New York odyssey. The slow-witted brother is played with striking authenticity by Bennie Safdie. They also cast Buddy Duress, an ex-con who was sent back to Riker’s Island before the film’s premiere. Putting a real-life career criminal in scenes with Pattinson kept both of them on their toes — their confrontations are riveting.
As innovative as those films were, the brothers continued to work on a script that would fully realize their ambitions, Uncut Gems. A decade of casting changes and rewrites have paid off. Working again with Bronstein, now as a co-editor, their new film moves at an unrelenting pace from one high-pitched emotional moment to the next. Lines of dialogue overlap; the camera veers from close-up to close-up. And the performances dazzle.
Few directors would have the audacity and skill to dare to create such a work of breathtaking authenticity with such a disparate cast: a world-famous comedian, a sports legend, a renowned monologist, the star of Frozen, a Grammy-winning singer, the star of TV’s Taxi, and a sports radio host, along with actor Lakeith Stanfield and a bunch of first-timers, unknowns, and an actual UPS delivery man (if you’re keeping track, that’s Adam Sandler, Kevin Garnett, Eric Bogosian, Idina Menzel, the Weeknd, Judd Hirsch, Mike Francesa, Julia Fox, and actual tough guys Keith Williams Richards and Tommy Kominik).
Sandler, who displayed genuine dramatic acting chops in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love (2002), again finds charm inside a very miserable character. He plays jewelry merchant Howard Ratner — a braggart, adulterer, and inveterate sports gambler. Set in NYC’s diamond district, Ratner has come across a rare uncut rock filled with precious gems. He sees the stone as a way to pay off his gambling debts. Enter Kevin Garnett and his entourage. The basketball legend (playing himself) enthralls Ratner, who ends up lending him the valuable rock as a good luck piece in exchange for Garnett’s championship ring, which Ratner pawns. Meanwhile, a few small-time hoods, accompanied by Ratner’s brother-in-law Amo (Bogosian), are clamoring for repayment. Ratner is also having an affair with his saleswoman (Julia Fox), who is crazy about him. His wife Dinah (a prickly Ida Menzel) is fed up, hates him, and wants a divorce. Still, Ratner can’t stop placing bets; he never stops barking into his cell phone, making either deals or excuses. He wants desperately to be loved and to be important, but each decision works out worse than the next.
Still, through it all, Ratner maintains an unrealistic optimism. Even after he is stuffed naked into the trunk of his own car by thugs (Richards, Kominik) and forced to call his wife to release him, Ratner manages to summon up an idiot’s grin. Cinematographer Darius Khondji’s camera either closes in on faces or careens through streets of the city. By shooting at a distance with a long lens, Khondji manages to include pedestrians, who are unaware a scene is being shot with Sandler. The raucous, ambient score by frequent collaborator Daniel Lopatin (also known as Oneohtrix Point Never) helps the film maintain its frenetic pace.
At a screening with the Safdies, Garnett, Lopatin, and Sandler, I asked the comedian how, given his naturally likable presence, he tapped into “his inner asshole.” The actor laughed. “You should see me with my kids watching sports. I’m psychotic.” He added, “I like this guy. He just wants to prove himself and has a few problems along the way.” The question I asked also tied into the film’s unique opening, an elaborately staged prologue at a mine in Africa where we see workers putting their bodies at risk seeking out gems. As the stone of the title is uncovered, the camera moves up close, dissolving into an abstract play of light. Suddenly, we’re no longer in the mine but looking at a colonoscopy screen. We are literally peering at Ratner’s “inner asshole,” which sets up a brilliant juxtaposition of the exploitation of African miners with the cutthroat capitalist wheeling and dealing of gems trading. This darkly humorous tone resonates right up to the very end of the film.
You will laugh at Uncut Gems, but you will leave the theater shaking.