Telluride Film Festival Review: Uncut Gems is Captivating and Disorienting
Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie have been making short films since 2005 but in 2017 their film, Good Times recieved a lot of critical acclaim including multiple Independent Spirit Award nominations. Now, two years later, Josh and Benny are releasing their newest film, Uncut Gems right in time for award season. Uncut Gems is being released by A24 and held its World Premiere at the 46th Annual Telluride Film Festival which is where I saw the film.
Uncut Gems was a passion project for the Safdie Brothers. During a Q&A at Telluride, the brothers spoke about how they have been anxiously waiting almost 10 years to make this film. They always knew they wanted Adam Sandler for the film but it wasn’t until the release of Good Times that their dreams of getting the script into Sandler’s hands became a reality. It seems to me that Adam Sandler is having somewhat of a career renaissance in 2019. Murder Mystery became the biggest film to ever be released on Netflix and now, with Uncut Gems, he delivers a captivating performance that is one of his best to date.
Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a smooth-talking New York jeweler with a massive gambling problem. He owes money to more people than he can keep track of so he’s always looking for ways to get more. Howard discovers an Ethiopian mine where there are rocks filled with rare and valuable black opals. He manages to track one down and has it delivered to his jewelry store in Manhattan. Once the rock arrives, Howard opens it with much excitement because he figures that the opals are worth over $3,000 a carat. He quickly puts the rock in an auction and hopes for it to sell for over a million dollars . Unfortunately, Howard’s hits some unexpected roadblocks including bookies, mobsters, and the Boston Celtics’ Kevin Garnett.
Uncut Gems is polarizing and definitely not a film for everyone. I can totally see how certain audiences will struggle to connect with the film due to the shady characters, jarring storytelling, and a overbearing soundtrack. The film is an attack on the senses in many ways because it constantly keeps moving and never slows down. From the very first scene until the end credits, you are experiencing life the way that Howard lives it which is full of chaos and uncertainty. However, you quickly learn that those are the things that drive him and keep him going. Howard is the type of person who isn’t happy sitting in an office. Instead, he spends his time running around New York City trying to track down his next big score while trying to avoid conflict with others.
Most of Uncut Gems relies on Adam Sandler’s performance and he absolutely crushes it. About five minutes into this film, you know exactly the type of person that Howard Ratner is. He can sell anything to anyone and nothing is ever enough. He has no problem lying or manipulating others including his own family. He ignores his wife and kids on a regular basis and has a short fuse whenever things don’t go his way. Sandler plays Howard as a man who lives in a constant state of panic with a plethora of insecurities. There is a great moment in the film where Howard breaks down crying to his mistress Julia (Julia Fox), who also happens to work in his jewelry store. There is such an authenticity to this scene and Sandler perfectly captured it.
There are multiple moments throughout the film where I found myself shaking my head in disbelief. Not because what was happening on-screen was unrealistic, but because I couldn’t believe the risks that this guy was taking. There are numerous points where it felt like Howard was about to turn things around but as it turns out, he is not only addicted to gambling but the rush that it gives him. As a viewer, I felt that rush and it was what kept me so fixated on this character.
Howard, as well as the majority of the characters in Uncut Gems, don’t have much of a moral code per se. Everyone is out for themselves so if you are looking for a film with characters that you can get behind and root for, this isn’t that movie. Personally, I liked that all of the characters especially Howard were all sort of soulless. They live in the moment and don’t care whatsoever about how their actions impact others. The scenes between Howard and Dinah (Idina Menzel) are so fascinating because Howard doesn’t seem to comprehend that she knows he is full of shit.
My only real complaint with Uncut Gems is that the scrore is relentless and incredibly overwhelming. The loud synth-based soundtrack plays constantly throughout and there were multiple times where it took me out of the film completely. As a result, this not only hurt the storytelling but the performances. I can see how some will refer to Uncut Gems as a headache-inducing film because when you combine the soundtrack with everything else going on in the film, it is a lot to take in.
While I don’t expect to see the same level of critical praise from Uncut Gems that Safdie Brothers recieved from Good Times, I do think this film confirms that their careers are just getting started. Uncut Gems is a pulse-pounding film that is as captivating as it is disorienting. Adam Sandler’s performance is truly terrific and one of the best of his career. If you are a fan of the Safdie Brothers, you don’t want to miss this one.
Scott ‘Movie Man’ Menzel’s rating for Uncut Gems is a 7.5 out of 10.