When ‘Uncut Gems’ was released on Netflix earlier this summer, I initially didn’t care. I’d already seen it when it hit theaters this past December, after advertising it to my friends as one of my most highly anticipated movies of the year, one that would definitely earn Adam Sandler some serious clout in Hollywood. They all agreed to go with me to see it, despite not really understanding what the movie would be about from the trailer. Long story short, all my friends hated it, citing the movie’s lack of a real plot, overly obnoxious and loud acting from Adam Sandler, and the overall confusion that lingers throughout the entire film as reasons why. I was super excited for this movie, but ended up so disappointed, and it seemed like others had similar feelings of letdown. After all, Uncut Gems only received an Audience Score of 52%.
So, when the Safdie Brothers’ film was released on Netflix, I thought back to my theatrical experience and said, “Eh, seen it already.” However, I still knew that, despite being snubbed at the Oscars, Uncut Gems was critically acclaimed, with Adam Sandler and the Safdie Brothers collectively winning 3 Independent Spirit Awards for the film. That confused me, and I was curious how a film with such low audience reviews could earn a 95% from Rotten Tomatoes’ top critics? To answer my question, I did what I never thought I’d do after my mixed theatrical experience: I watched the movie again, and realized that this movie delivers a painstakingly-accurate message of how quickly one’s actions can throw their life into disarray, as well as highlighting all the wrong ways one can try to resolve the consequences.
I don’t think that Uncut Gems can be truly appreciated after your first viewing. Speaking from experience, viewers will likely be too preoccupied with catching up with each mishap in the fast-paced crime thriller to fully process and appreciate the Safdie Brothers’ creation. For instance, during my own initial watchthrough, I was too busy waiting for a plot-turning change of tone that never came, and because of that, I looked beyond the miniscule details that are necessary to understanding the movie and Sandler’s character. You have to really think about what’s happening and the larger reasons behind why things happen throughout the film, rather than passively watch the movie to finish the plot and see the ending. Additionally, you must understand that the film is intentionally an insanely but intentionally stressful experience, as that perfectly sets the tone for the protagonist’s downward spiral. Rewatching the film from this perspective made me realize that, while I initially cited Gems’ stress as a weakness, it’s actually the movie’s greatest strength.
A common criticism levied at Uncut Gems is its lack of plot, but skeptical viewers should approach the crime thriller as a “day-in-the-life” movie. Set in New York’s Diamond District, the film follows Adam Sandler as jeweler/hustler/gambler/protagonist Howard Ratner, who is always one irresponsible action away from giving the viewer a heart attack. Stuck in serious debt to his brother-in-law, Arno, Howard acquires a priceless opal from Ethiopia that he’s planning to auction off to pay off his debts. However, this seemingly simple plan quickly takes a turn when Howard shows the gem to NBA player Kevin Garnett, who quickly expresses an obsession with the stone because he believes it gives him magical powers. From this point on, all hell breaks loose. For the rest of the movie, you’re forced to bear witness to the anxiety-inducing misadventures of a gambler who painfully lacks all self-awareness of his own problems and has a pathological need for an impossible more, for a mythical win. This trait is the catalyst for Howard’s destruction, as his antics end up in the loss of relationships within his family, his reputation in the Diamond District, and ultimately his own life at the end of the film.
This insatiable need also bleeds into areas that are seemingly unrelated to gambling or shiny rocks. For example, Howard gets ambushed by Arno’s thugs while at his daughter’s school play, and on a completely separate occasion, gets approached by two brothers claiming he sold them fake Rolexes while leaving to retrieve his opal that’s in Philly. When one of Howard’s problems arise, another completely different problem is always hiding right behind it, forcing him to constantly chase his problems and consciously make decisions to reel them back around, all while the audience anxiously waits for the chaos to cease. The ending of Uncut Gems abruptly derails the insane emotional rollercoaster; for the first time in the film, Howard has finally solved all his problems, as he has just won, the huge bet on the Celtics’ game...only to get shot a moment later. While bleak on the surface, this ending is arguably how the Safdie Brothers gave him a “happy ending in an unhappy world”: Howard’s past actions imply that he would have eventually lost all of the money anyway, and all the money from his next big win, and so on, forever trapped by his never-ending gambling addiction. This speculation is reaffirmed with the chilling smile on Howard’s lifeless face, implying that he died at the high of his life--right after achieving that “ultimate win.”
The Safdie brothers truly made this film an immersive experience, and showed me what that type of filmic experience really meant. It’s not easy to do, and it adds to the anxiety of the film as viewers are forced to imagine themselves in the protagonist’s position. One scene that stands out to me in this regard is the one in which Howard nearly loses his chance of getting his priceless opal back from Garnett, simply because he couldn't get his shop’s door to open properly. Even after Howard finally gets the door to work, the audience is reminded that KG’s NBA Championship ring (Collateral for borrowing the opal) is still sitting in a pawn shop. It’s just the best type of cringe, with every action and decision of Sandler’s character having the audience asking, “Why?! Why would he do that?!” Viewers are thus terrified to be in Howard’s position, and desperately want him to do the right thing just once, so they can get their own peace of mind. I personally liken Howard’s character and life to that of a car that is always racing to the nearest gas station in the final miles before its tank runs empty. The most frustrating part is that every time Howard has the means to pay off his debts and mend his relationships, he uses his newly obtained resources to just make a higher wager in search of an even bigger payoff instead of doing the logical thing. For example, KG is willing to pay $175k for the Ethipoian Opal, but Howard is confident he can get more money for it at auction, so he asks his father-in-law to drive up the bids against KG. Like everything else in the film, this seems simple, but takes a turn for the worst when KG is no longer willing to bid, and Howard’s father-in-law is stuck with opal when he could’ve just sold it to KG in the first place.
Ultimately, I think that audiences have a hard time appreciating the immersive experience that the Safdie Brothers created with Uncut Gems if they’re looking for a clearly-defined plot, like you’d find in 1917 or Gravity. Other viewers may just prefer more laid back tones rather than the high-stress experience Uncut Gems offers. However, I truly think that after viewers get a grasp of what to expect and what is going on, this is a terrific film. Adam Sandler’s performance is a career-defining one, and combined with the creative vision of the Safdie Brothers, the film became A24’s highest grossing production. To anyone who was left with mixed emotions or disappointment after their first viewing, I encourage you to watch it again. Once you think about the sheer emotions and scary realities the film depicts and the craziness of Adam Sandler, it becomes easier to identify and appreciate the beauty behind the madness of Uncut Gems.