by Daniel O'Connell Josh and Benny Safdie, known collectively as the Safdie Brothers, are a pair of New York City-based independent filmmakers who have risen to prominence in the past few years. Their NYC settings and use of urban grit are reminiscent of a director like Abel Ferarra. They first gained attention in 2014 with Heaven Knows What, a drama focusing on heroin addicts in NYC, based on the unpublished memoirs of Arielle Holmes (who stars in the movie as a slightly fictionalized version of herself). Soon after, they gained further recognition with Good Time, a movie about a bank robber who desperately tries to get bail money for his mentally disabled brother. The film received critical acclaim, notably for its direction and Robert Pattinson’s lead performance. Now, the Safdies once again bring their A-game with their latest movie, the crime thriller, Uncut Gems. The film follows Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a charismatic jeweler who works in the New York Diamond District and is struggling to pay back his gambling debts. However, his luck begins to change when he comes across a rare uncut black opal priced at over a million dollars. With loan sharks after him and his life crumbling all around him, Howard has to go through a series of high stakes acts, such as appealing to his buyers and to loan sharks, in order to get the gem and come out on top.
Excellent cast lead by a career-best performanceThe most notable thing about this movie is that it sees Adam Sandler back, starring in a serious, dramatic role. As an actor, Sandler has made his career by starring mostly in juvenile, lowbrow comedies that—while financially successful—have been torn to shreds by critics; however, he has proven that with the right material and direction, he can shine in dramatic work, be it Reign Over Me or Punch-Drunk Love. Although, this film might just be his best work to date. Like the Safdies’ previous movie Good Time, Uncut Gems film is about a terrible person, but is still engaging because of the strong lead performance. Howard is a total scumbag, from the way he treats his employees to how he screws over clients and potential buyers. Whenever he gets enough money to pay off his debts, he gambles with it in order to make more money, which is frustrating to watch. However, Sandler’s performance makes Howard a lot more endearing and gives him a certain charm that makes you want to follow him. Actors like Jonah Hill and Sacha Baron Cohen were considered for Howard, but I don’t see this movie working out as well without Sandler in the lead. Aside from Sandler, the rest of the cast is great as well. NBA legend Kevin Garnett makes his film debut here, playing a fictionalized version of himself who expresses interest in buying the opal, seeing it as a good luck charm. He does a great job in his first acting experience, coming across as a genuine, real-life person. He doesn’t act wooden or ham it up like some might expect a sports star in an acting role to do. Also making her acting debut is Julia Fox, playing Julia, an employee of Howard who also acts as his mistress. Despite this being her first role, she comes off as somebody who has a lot of acting experience, giving a great performance.
Anxiety-inducing cinematography and directionOne piece of praise that has to be given to the Safdie Brothers is their use of cinematography in their work, and this is especially notable in Uncut Gems. Cinematographer Darius Khondiji uses a wide variety of different techniques in filming this movie. The film uses a lot of close-ups—which have become a trademark of the Safdies—in order to make the viewer feel uncomfortable and claustrophobic. They also employ a lot of far shots that make us feel as if we’re just capturing a glimpse of a scene. This makes the movie feel less cinematic, and more like we’re following the characters around and filming them with a camera. This is not a bad thing, as it adds a great deal to the grittiness that the Safdies are known for and enhances the viewing experience. Good Time established the Safdie Brothers as directors capable of making intense, nail-biting films. With Uncut Gems, they have decided to up the ante on this aspect, making a movie that can be described as completely nerve-wracking. The film utilizes a great use of sound mixing to make the characters talk over one another, as in real life. The use of cinematography adds into this, as the use of close-ups makes one very anxious. Altogether, it leaves the viewer anxiety-ridden and at the edge of their seat, as if the Safdie Brothers are trying to personally give them a panic attack.
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