Uncut Gems opens on a kaleidoscopic, hallucinatory colonoscopy being performed on Adam Sandler. The film, as a whole, could honestly be summed up as the artistic equivalent of that. Take that as what you will.
For the full two-hour runtime, Uncut Gems carries a frantic, kinetic energy that escapes the screen and overtakes the viewer. The Safdie brothers have a way about their filmmaking that makes the smallest of moments anxiety-inducing. Voices overlap, raising well above all the others in the shot; a twitchy but electric soundtrack like something out of an Atari game highlights moments that would be otherwise deafening.
For a film hinged on crime, plenty of Uncut Gems’ intensity comes from hectic scenes like the jewelry store being filled to the brim with a sea of people, all of whom are loud and unwilling to shut up, clashing voices rising octaves above each other in the discord. Uncut Gems, like other Safdie films before it, is a panic attack brought to screen.
The coked-out crime thriller jitters through the narrative, but does so with an unabashed confidence — in that way, it’s similar to our hero, Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler). Ratner’s life is a shaky tightrope walk. He owns a jewelry store in New York’s Diamond District where he blesses the city’s elite with chains embellished with diamond-encrusted Furbys, but this is not enough to pay off all of his gambling debts. An addict, Howard can’t stop himself when he sees a good betting opportunity, his looming debts stacking higher and higher, threatening to topple over and crush him dead at any given moment.
Once this is all established, there’s only two directions to go in: you’re either about to see a man crawl out of the world’s tightest spot or let it collapse on him in an act of self-destruction.
Howard’s downward spiral is crafted in a way that makes you feel as though you’re the one on the losing end. The clash of garish sounds and visuals overwhelms the audience and forces them into the same spot as Howard.
Sandler disappears into Howard’s skin, emerging abrasive and shrill, oozing faux-grandiosity and all the confidence he’s unfairly derived from it. There’s a strange charm about Howard that leaves viewers rooting for him and cursing him out all at once.
His supporting cast is made up of a number of non-actors who he plays off of with ease. Julia Fox, a woman the Safdies once met in a cafe a decade ago, has an intoxicating debut as Howard’s mistress, the unshakeable love she looks at him with almost seeming unrehearsed. Kevin Garnett is a fictionalized version of himself and carries his weight of each scene he’s in with a naturalistic performance.
Uncut Gems is cacophony put to camera, chaos exemplified in every aspect of the filmmaking. It’s a film built on the intent of making heart rates soar and knuckles turn bright white. The disarray is not packaged neatly, but beautifully, and culminates in a well-earned, clever climax. It’s a two-hour wave of nausea you’ll actually want to ride.