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It’s like having a panic attack for two hours straight.
I mean that in the nicest way possible. It’s stressful, aggravating, and you can’t look away from it. Like seeing a family member spiral out of control, the film offers no easy outs or reprieve. Directed with skill by The Safdie Brothers, UNCUT GEMS establishes them as a dynamic duo to watch with great interest.
Howard is a jewelry store owner and gambling addict constantly on the verge of drowning. Up to his eyeballs in debt and unable to make one good decision, he’s a walking disaster waiting to implode. As a rare uncut gem falls into his hands, Howard believes his troubles are finally over. All he needs is to sell the rock to pay off loan sharks (including his brother-in-law, Arno), and he’s home free.
If only things were that simple, and if only Howard wasn’t so prone on making things worse for himself just by existing. Like a reverse story of Job, UNCUT GEMS is ultimately a modern day parable sans morality.
The real revelation here is Adam Sandler. Already impressive in PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, it’s his part as the malfunctioning Howard that should make people take note. In lesser hands just a loudmouth jerk, Sandler injects Howard with pitiful empathy that allows us to understand why people put up with him. The result feels disturbingly authentic; like watching a guy holding a pair talking smack like he’s got a full house. I was constantly angered by his self-destructive choices, yet I kept wanting him to turn things around and win. There’s a venomous self-doubt coursing through the veins of this film. A fear of missing out on a big win that’s never coming. As every sign points to failure, Sandler spins himself to believe the opposite is true.
All we can do is watch him circle the drain, and it’s this inevitability that makes UNCUT GEMS feel like a horror film.
That extends to the imagery as well. Clawed out of the ground like Pazuzu in THE EXORCIST, the gem might as well be a cursed artefact. A haunting synth score amplifies the otherworldly effect, and there’s something inherently evil in the way everyone behaves around it. The impeccable Lakeith Stanfield changes his entire posture at the mere mention of the rock; basketball player Kevin Garnett is driven crazy by the kaleidoscopic brilliance inside the gem; and in a pivotal role the wonderful Eric Bogosian reminds everyone why he’s a treasure of the silver screen.
Filmed in Manhattan, we never get a view of the expansive city. Endless close-ups keep the focus tight, as if we lived with blinders on. Emphasized by cramped corridors and packed stalls that occupy his world, Howard is a rat in a maze of his own making. Even the jewelry store, his kingdom, is barely big enough to walk through without causing some damage. In a moment of delicious dry humor, Howard proudly puts forward his sturdy looking display cabinets, only for them to crack immediately under pressure. There couldn’t be a more fitting metaphor for their owner. If that feels oppressive, good. That’s the point: Howard’s life is an exposed nerve with a cat incessantly batting at it.
It’s a shame that UNCUT GEMS isn’t seeing a theatrical release in Europe. This is a visceral and loud film best suited for cinemas. Dropped into Howard’s daily hustle, it’s an endless barrage of sound and music from every direction. At home in a controlled environment it’s much easier to keep an objective distance. But in a theater the inability to pause or look away as UNCUT GEMS builds up to a nightmarish cacophony only heightens the anxiety.
Put on a pair of headphones and watch it alone in the dark. It’ll be the best worst experience you’ll have all year.