Uncut Gems (2019)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Here is a portrait of a bleeding man flopping about in the middle of the ocean, no help in sight for miles, as sharks circle around him. Writer-directors Benny and Josh Safdie observe with a careful eye as their subject attempts to wriggle himself out of one high tension, high anxiety situation after another. The man is named Howard Ratner, a jewelry store owner with a gambling addiction, and he owes a lot money from a lot of people all over New York City.
The Safdie brothers possess a knack for placing us in the action. Notice how scenes are rarely silent, if ever. For instance, in Howard’s often crowded jewelry store, people tend to talk over one another. Performers must shout in order to stand out from all the commotion. People are always moving around an enclosed space, whether we are the middle of a family gathering, at a school play, or at a club where The Weeknd is performing. Out in the streets, people walk and talk with urgency; it gives the impression that the directors simply decided to shoot in the middle of city. The impromptu tone and feeling is so apparent, there are instances where extras can be caught looking in the direction of the camera. And yet, miraculously, none of these elements distract us from observing Howard as he struggles to find excuses why he doesn’t have so-and-so’s money.
Howard is played by great vitality by Adam Sandler. The subject is not at all likable. He is neither a good husband nor father. His relatives regard him with disappointment. The people he employs tell him they do not feel respected or appreciated in the workplace. Debt collectors are tired of him. Some of them look as though they wish to kill him.
Sandler plays a drowning man so convincingly. At one point, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him even though I knew that his own actions have led him to current state of misery. But is he miserable? Or is what we are seeing simply the man going through the usual motions of an addict? He appears to be highly confident he could extricate himself out of tricky, potentially violent situations. Here is an excellent example of a character who is not likable but is endlessly fascinating. Howard needs serious help.
Many have complimented the Safdies for their ability to capture a ‘70s gritty vibe. It is well-deserved. But I take a bit further: the filmmakers have an understanding of films from the ‘70s that are about men with an inclination. Because Howard has gambling problem, notice how the camera is often fixated on his hands and mouth. The hands are always fidgeting, whether it be dialing a telephone, handing off cash or jewelry, or giving a restrained pat on the back or handshake. The mouth, too, is always moving even when it is not saying anything of value. Teeth protrude which gives the illusion of a false smile—when in fact it just makes people uncomfortable. There is an occasional repetitive smacking of the lips.
“Uncut Gems” is for viewers with a penchant for character study. There is action unfolding all around, but its core is a sad look at a man who is lost. The more we spend time with him, the more we are convinced he is beyond help. There is an exchange between Howard and his wife (Idina Menzel) during Passover in which the former begs the latter that maybe they ought to reconsider giving their marriage another shot. He appears earnest, but she just laughs at him anyway. In fact, she humiliates him. At the same time, Dinah cannot be blamed for acting this way. I think she is angry not just because of how he treats her but also in how he is like around their children. The teenage daughter barely looks at him. When she does, she looks at him as though he is trash. Maybe he is. And maybe he knows that, too.