Uncut Gems begins in the bowels of an Ethiopian diamond mine, a hellish, unforgiving environment where miners’ fingers have literally been worked to the bone. The camera lingers on those wounds, and the cries of the injured men, before zooming in on the ugly oblong treasure they’ve unearthed: a gnarled rock studded with black opals that dazzles on closer look. As the camera closes in, the sparkly image morphs into the depths of the mine and then into an actual human bowel—the footage of a colonoscopy being undergone by the opals’ future owner, Howard Ratner (played by Adam Sandler). That’s the Uncut Gems experience: horrifying, transfixing, and ultimately, to use Tony Kushner’s immortal phrasing, intestinal.
That’s also the experience of a Josh and Benny Safdie movie. Beginning with anxiety-inducing micro-budget indies such as Daddy Longlegs (2009), the directing duo have specialized in stories that crackle with the nervy energy of New York’s seedy underbelly. Their previous effort, 2017’s Good Time, threw a big-name star into the mix, conjuring career-best work from Robert Pattinson as a bank robber trying to stay one step ahead of the law. The collaboration with Sandler in Uncut Gems feels even more inspired; though the comic star has been happy to subvert his onscreen image in the past, Howard might be the most fully realized performance he’s ever given.
The film is set in a very specific time period—the summer of 2012—and much of its action revolves around a particular NBA playoff game featuring the Boston Celtics. Howard is a Manhattan diamond dealer, a leather-jacket-clad man out of time who presides over a windowless fortress stacked with precious gems, many of them studded into tacky accessories or vintage toys. He has the profane “I’m walkin’ here!” energy of Dustin Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo, but the New York he inhabits is a far cry from the 1960s world of Midnight Cowboy. Howard is a sultan of crap, a flashy fool who’s nonetheless certain that he’s just one big deal away from hitting the big time.
The former Celtics star Kevin Garnett, who plays himself in a fairly substantial supporting role, appears as a symbol of both Howard’s aspirations and his lack of sense. After Garnett sees Howard’s new gemstone-studded rock and becomes entranced by it, Howard happily lends it to him as a good-luck charm for the game, delighted by the clout conferred by such a famous figure. But when he needs to retrieve and sell the rock to settle old debts, Garnett is nowhere to be found, and Howard’s life quickly starts to unravel.
Sandler has a skill for manic yelling and comic aggression that he’s used to great effect throughout his career, not only in comedy but also in more serious works, such as Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories. He also possesses a firm grasp on his characters’ defining weaknesses, and Howard’s is that he cannot perceive his own doom even when it’s right in front of him. Howard is convinced that the magic rock filled with opals is going to be his salvation. However, Uncut Gems’ script (written by the Safdies and their longtime collaborator Ronald Bronstein) is much more a Shakespearean tragedy than a story of rags-to-riches triumph.
Howard’s life is, after all, pretty splendid on the surface. He’s a successful business owner with a lavish suburban home, a beautiful wife (Idina Menzel) and kids, and a devoted mistress (Julia Fox, in an incredible debut). Yet his combination of aggressive neediness and abrasive egotism sets almost everyone against him: His wife is ready to file for divorce; his business partner, Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), cheerfully ignores his calls; and even his bookie (the New York sports-talk-radio legend Mike Francesa) insults him to his face. He’s got an eternal chip on his shoulder and a raging inferiority complex—which is appropriate for Manhattan in the summer of 2012, when the New York Knicks let Jeremy Lin walk to a different team and lost their first chance at lasting relevance in a decade. (Since the Safdies are as die-hard Knicks fans as I am, I have to assume the psychic scars from that summer have lingered.)
Howard is a buffoon, but a remarkably compelling one who commands sympathy even as his gambling addiction and refusal to compromise draw him into darker and darker places. The Safdies and the cinematographer Darius Khondji turn New York into a neon-saturated circle of hell that echoes the shape-shifting colonic nightmare of the opening sequence; a pounding electronic score, by Daniel Lopatin, only elevates the tension further. If that makes Uncut Gems sound unpleasant, well, it sometimes is, but the Safdies have a magic touch with unpleasantness. They can find pure human tragedy in the most baroque modern horrors, buried like diamonds within the rock. This is their finest piece of excavation yet.