Originally published as part of our London Film Festival coverage in October 2019
As much as American cinema is based in LA, it’s New York that has always been the country’s most iconic on-screen destination. How well they use this manic city can be a real test for a filmmaker. For a long time, the premiere chronicler of NYC was, of course, Martin Scorsese. Taking his title in this new generation are the Safdie brothers. New York is the lifeblood of their oeuvre and Uncut Gems is their best film, one of the best New York films ever made.
Following a whirlwind couple of days in the life of diamond dealer and apocalyptically self-destructive gambler Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), Uncut Gems is a lightspeed sensory assault from start to finish. The noises of the city, its bright lights, and the chaos of Howard’s life batter the audience, locking you into your seat with unbelievably tense set-pieces. It is so frantically intense that you can barely breathe, and you’re left physically drained by the experience.
Yet it’s also utterly exhilarating, the Safdies barrelling through their narrative with miraculous speed and skill, always pushed further and further by the varied, thrilling score. Darius Khondji’s cinematography leaps from gritty to stunningly gorgeous abstraction without ever pausing for breath, a perfect match for the exhausting story.
Sandler has never been better than he is here, making Howard eminently unlikable without ever stopping you rooting for him. It’s a magnificent performance around which the nail-biting chaos of the story is built and he is captivating from start to finish.
It’s hard to remember the last time a film consistently kept up tension for this long (even Fury Road took a couple of breaks). With Uncut Gems, the Safdies are operating on another level entirely, making a film that is, quite simply, a force of nature.
CAST: Adam Sandler, Julia Fox, Lakeith Stanfield, Kevin Garnett, Judd Hirsch, Idina Menzel, Eric Bogosian
DIRECTORS: Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie
WRITERS: Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie, Ronald Bronstein
SYNOPSIS: A charismatic New York City jeweller, always on the lookout for the next big score, makes a series of high-stakes bets that could lead to the windfall of a lifetime. Howard must perform a precarious high-wire act, balancing business, family, and encroaching adversaries on all sides, in his relentless pursuit of the ultimate win.