By Bradley Lane
Josh and Benny Safdie have been making low-budget independent films in New York since 2005. In the time since, they have earned widespread acclaim for films like Daddy Longlegs, Heaven Knows What and their 2017 breakout hit, Good Time. Debuting at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, Good Time earned the Safdie brothers the industry clout necessary to make a larger, more ambitious feature film. Enter one of last year’s biggest critical darlings, Uncut Gems.
A story based heavily on the experiences of their father working in the diamond district of New York City, Uncut Gems is a character study of gambling addict and jeweler Howard Ratner. The events of the film begin when Ratner purchases an uncut gemstone, which he intends to sell at auction for over $1 million. However, due to competing deadlines for his long list of debts and a genuine lack of self-restraint, Ratner is put at harms way by those he has shorted. Ratner also struggles to keep possession of the gem from NBA player Kevin Garnett, amid his unstoppable urge to push his luck, gambling away any money he makes back immediately on the Celtics 2012 playoff run.
In case it wasn’t clear from the plot synopsis, Uncut Gems is a tense film. It is anxiety inducing and prone to keeping you on the edge of your seat, firmly clinching the armrests. And it is this idiosyncratic emotional experience that makes the Safdie’s special.
Of course, this effect did not emerge from a vacuum. While it is true, mainstream films have always set out to entertain, movies are so much more than just entertainment. John Cassavetes thought as much when he picked up a camera to lead the first wave of American independent films in the late 50s in New York City. His pictures were filmed on location in New York completely outside of the Hollywood studio system with tiny budgets, limited technology and a frenetic, almost amateurish style. This gritty aesthetic lent itself perfectly to the dark, realistic and introspective stories in which Cassavetes’ characters found themselves. His substantive and stylistic influence is painted all over the Safdie’s body of work, complemented by their signature extreme close-up style of filming distinguishing themselves from their cinematic forefather. Watching their films feels like a clear continuation of the New York independent film scene’s legacy characterized by their willingness to alienate and challenge their audience.
I mentioned earlier this film was critically praised on its release only because the audience reaction to its release was far less enthusiastic. This was widely blamed on the directors’ intense style clashing with wide audience’s expectations for an Adam Sandler-led project. Which is exactly why I am reviewing it now. I believe that general audiences could absolutely find value in Howard Ratner’s struggles had they just been provided with the proper context.
That being covered already, Uncut Gems provides a wholly unique experience carefully crafted to stress you out, but also to share with you the lessons of Ratner’s almost parable-like adventure. Uncut Gems is available to stream on Netflix. – 4/5 stars