By Afra Nariman
Uncut Gems (2019)
Directed by: The Safdie Brothers
Stars: Adam Sandler, Kevin Garnett, Julia Fox, Idina Menzel, Lakeith Stanfield
A compulsive gambler named Howard (played by Adam Sandler) gets in way over his head as he attempts to balance his personal life, his business and the enemies he makes along the way on route to his goal of striking it rich with one colossal bet.
Whew. That’ll be your reaction to watching Uncut Gems, the latest adrenaline-infused thriller directed by the Safdie brothers. Disclaimer: I will be using the word “intense” and multiple variations of the word “intense” numerous times in this review. There really isn’t a better word to describe this film.
Very few films, if any at all, can match the level of constant, relentless and unforgivable intensity that radiates throughout every single minute of this film. It gives us a glance into the life of a gambling addict, Howard, who can’t resist but to always take the risk and bet bigger. From the get-go, we see that he is already in major debt, and that dilemma’s consequences only develop and intensify further as the story progresses. We see his personal life continue to deteriorate as the trajectory of the consequences of his gambling addiction begins to find itself in a free fall, until he begins to flirt with rock-bottom. His family-life is compromised, he owes numerous people around town tons of money, and he keeps betting more and more in an attempt to cover his losses. In the end, he makes one final bet that is his biggest risk yet, and ends up winning but is rewarded with an unforeseen and tragic outcome to his story. The film portrays a story of greed and how it can compromise your quality of life and lead to you losing the things that money can’t buy.
Perhaps one of the most astounding aspects of Uncut Gems is that it features Adam Sandler’s breathtaking performance in the most dynamic role of his career. There is insurmountable pressure on him as the lead actor, for the literal entirety of the film, which is constantly intense, full of fierce dialogue, anticipatory movement and an all-encompassing essence of feeling alive at all times. The film doesn’t let you relax. It’s unparalleled in how immersive it feels, and demands your undivided attention and involvement in the viewing experience. Sandler is practically always on screen, talking and screaming as we observe the life of his character. He has spoken about how different this role was for him, but he more than nailed it. Additionally, NBA legend Kevin Garnett deserves credit for how well he portrayed himself in this story. As a first time actor, he was asked to participate in a very unique film and performed extremely naturally.
Uncut Gems is not one of those films that you cannot watch when you feel indifferent about watching a film; you cannot be laid-back, relaxed or uninvolved. Every single second of the film is full of anxious and intense dialogue that forcefully requires the act of keeping your eyes and ears ready to receive what is being offered to you. It stays hard to believe without ever crossing the line to being unbelievable; it’s a real story that leaves you in shock at every turn. It’s interesting because it gives us a slice-of-life into a side of reality that many people don’t experience themselves and are therefore unaware of the severity and extent to which this kind of story is real.
Uncut Gems has a commanding control of your senses, from the intriguing first scene to the unanticipated devastation of the last scene. It’s an intense, powerful “character study” of a gambling addict in a free fall. Adam Sandler’s performance as Howard leaves us waiting for his next dramatic role. His performance should be spoken about with a folkloric energy for years to come.
I’ll say it one more time: this film exhibits a level of jaw-dropping intensity that is rarely seen. The continuous element of anticipation that pulses through the film makes Uncut Gems deeply engaging if you find yourself interested, but can come off as annoying or as “a drag” if it doesn’t really work for you.