- James Kunovski
Uncut Gems: A Masterclass in Pulse
Mild spoilers below...
You may have stumbled across the Criterion Closet videos. Where filmmakers, critics, and sometimes cinephiles (case in point, The Wolfpack) are invited to peruse Criterion’s impressive movie selection. Basically, a filmgoer’s dream. When brothers Josh and Benny Safdie browsed the myriad of titles, they occasionally paused. Along the way, they admired Hitchcock’s The Lodger; teased the revealing title of Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped and reminisced about Blood Simple, the work of another pair of brothers.
Like the titles they admired, the Safdie Brothers have managed to create a sort of surreal and immersive twist on the thriller genre. Some might recognise their name from the neon-drenched, Robert Pattinson-helmed, Good Time.
Their latest film, Uncut Gems has managed to score its lead Adam Sandler in another dramatic role and follows a similar course. Using the gritty, *missed-out-on New York’s Disneyfication*, Diamond District as its hub, Uncut Gems tells the story of dishonest jeweller Howard (Sandler), who constantly craves the next big score. He juggles high-stakes bets while his personal life crumbles.
The madcap pressure of Uncut Gems begins shortly into the film, and once achieved the Brothers refuse to racket down the tension. Their goal is both visual and auditory. Overlapping dialogue plagues most scenes; unsought phone calls and voicemails permeate through. Similar to Good Time, there is a grungy richness in colour.
Howard's world, which contains one of the least-romanticised portrayals of New York on celluloid, owes its tension to its own prevalent chaotic borders. Most of the confrontations take place in Howard’s tiny store. When we move outside, into the scaffolding-adorned streets, the frantic cinematography of Darius Khondji only doubles the claustrophobia. His use of 1970s-esque slow zooms are intoxicating.
The film is deeply imbedded in sleazy underground New York culture, one where dishonesty and back-stabbing is rife. Given Howard comes as a deflated authority figure, and someone whose presence is unfailingly questioned, the constant phone calls and ringing buzzers comes with a threat, whether or not he sees it. Its undying realism can be attributed to the faithful portrayal of the gritty crime it portrays.
In a pulsing club, guest star The Weeknd (not playing himself) demands to perform under a black light, not unlike the priceless gems Howard boasts.
Sandler is a revelation. For those looking closely his dramatic ability has long been clear. He completely delves into his seedy turn and never once falls into the trap of the comedy that made him famous. His character has a penchant for bad decisions, and a predilection for trickling his precious assets around town. It's a frustrating experience that places new meaning on screaming at the screen.
In a more overlooked shift in typecasting is Idina Menzel as Dinah, Howard’s wife. Known for her work in musicals, she creates a full-blooded portrayal of a stern wife who won’t back down from Howard’s affairs.
While most characters play one-note throughout, it only makes their tribulations more turbulent. The Safdies’ film will likely stress viewers but the experience is so merciless, that it almost becomes entertaining for that alone. It’s an overactive knee-tapper of a film and one which can be directly related back to the unwavering muscle of the Safdie Brothers’ touch as creators.
By the film’s end, its steadfast folly, and queasy turn of events culminate into a masterclass of momentum. Like the films they admired in the Criterion Closet, some years ago, The Safdie Brothers have proven that they belong in the same league.
Uncut Gems is streaming on Netflix AU.