How do you find out what an actor is made of? For New York indie-film brothers Benny and Josh Safdie, you put them under extreme duress and watch closely. In 2014’s no-fi heroin movie Heaven Knows What, non-professional lead Arielle Holmes delivered an electrifying study in desperation and resilience. Meanwhile, 2017’s Good Time has become go-to viewing for proof that Robert Pattinson deserves the Batmobile keys.
For the Safdies’ latest character driven exercise in pulp-crime anxiety, Adam Sandler headlines Uncut Gems. It’s cruelly funny, for one thing. For another, the Safdies don’t so much reinvent Sandler as reframe him, playing to his impulsive man-child strengths in an environment that stretches them anew.
A jeweller and debt-riddled gambler with an appetite for self-destruction, Sandler’s Howard Ratner gets into trouble as he tries to usher imported black opals to auction. He believes loaning them to NBA star Kevin Garnett will boost his luck, but fate decrees otherwise. As misfortune strikes, Ratner pinballs between estranged wife Dinah (Idina Menzel), patient lover Julia (Julia Fox) and no-nonsense creditors in his desperation to retrieve the rocks. Punch-Drunk Love aside, he’s never been better cast. A time-bomb of foolish compulsion and childlike rage, Sandler maintains our attention and empathy even as his behaviour becomes increasingly moronic and morally impaired.
Meanwhile, the Safdies cook up an atmosphere of conflict to magnetic effect. Conversations become f-bombstrafed explosions, turning the air of NYC’s Diamond District blue. Castwise, Menzel’s soul-freezing stare, Fox’s slow-burn nuances and supporting heavy Keith Williams Richards’ projections of threat charge the atmosphere with stakes and intensity.
Director of Photography Darius Khondji’s images contribute a dense, textured sense of immediacy; a Jewish dinner scene, meanwhile, feels entirely lived-in. Impressively, this inside-out engagement with a specific world manages to evoke the ’70s films of Sidney Lumet and Martin Scorsese (executive producing here) without suffering by comparison. Bursts of expressive direction strengthen the Safdies’ hold, such that even Ratner’s relationship with doors – surging through them, locked behind them – becomes loaded with meaning.
Daniel Lopatin’s grandiose synth score helps thicken the mood, pulsing with tension. Some viewers may find this wired worldview abrasive, but the Safdies’ uncompromised confidence of vision brings its own tumultuous rewards. As for Sandler, a gold statuette come the Oscars would not be undeserved.