Uncut Gems: An Empathetic Spiral into Addiction
Warning: This review contains important plot details from Uncut Gems. “This is how I win,” Adam Sandler’s diamond-dealing, scene-stealing Howard Ratner tells Kevin Garnett late in Uncut Gems. It’s meant as a contrast: Howard’s grimy, sleazy, blood-soaked Diamond District contrasted against the sparkling parquet of Garnett’s kingdom. But in a movie that is more empathetic than the Safdie brothers’ past efforts, this is, perhaps above all, a moment of recognition between two addicts, one obsessive-compulsive, the other a staggering ball of unrestrained id. An addling Odyssey and an unrelenting tragedy rolled into one, Uncut Gems transcends its genre thrills by understanding that addiction lives and breathes on the razor’s edge, and that for Howard Ratner, winning is the beginning of the end. Uncut Gems is powered by a gorgeous but destructive black opal, uncovered in a disaster at an Ethiopian mine and shipped in a dead fish to the seedy underbelly of New York. The story zooms in on a one-week period in the opal’s millennia-long journey, when it is delivered to Howard Ratner, a Jewish jeweler and gambling addict who can’t turn a corner without running into someone to whom he owes money, an apology, or both. Howard views the opal’s arrival as a panacea to his problems, but his ego, compulsions, and bad luck inevitably get in the way. Laced throughout the movie's toxic tonic is a sobering reality: Howard does not really care about winning, does not really want to win. After lending his black opal to the superstitious Kevin Garnett before two different playoff games, Howard places two big-money parlay bets – multi-pronged bets that require each prong to hit in order for the bettor to make any money, but pay out big when they do. In both cases, despite knowing (or thinking he knows) something about KG’s performance that gives him an advantage, Howard does something stupid: he adds a bet on the opening tip to the parlay. Even if the opal helps Garnett and his team’s performance, it does nothing for a fairly random jump ball to kick off the game. And because of how parlay bets work, if the opening tip falls the wrong way, Howard loses everything. Or as he puts it: “would’ve been fucked if I didn’t get that.” The inclusion of these bets is a subtle but crucial example of how the Safdie brothers understand the internal life of a compulsive gambler. It’s the rush of the risk – the very stress and anxiety that turn many viewers off from their movie – that serves as the life-blood of a gambling addict like Howard. When Howard wins, his happiness comes not from the relief that extra money will help him pay down his debts, but from the assurance that he has a bankroll for his next gambit, his next adrenaline rush. And like any addiction, the bets have to get bigger and bigger, riskier and riskier, for Howard to find that high. Where the Safdies’ Good Time puts audiences through an anxiety-fueled ringer seemingly just to show they could, Uncut Gems does it for a purpose. Daniel Lopatin’s synth-heavy score rarely eases up; Darius Khondji’s camerawork spins and hurtles through the small spaces of the diamond district and whips around the vast exteriors of New York City; and all of it is bathed in pulsating blues and greens that leave audiences stumbling into the sunlight, searching frantically for Tylenol. All of these technical touches recreate Howard’s reality for audiences. The anxiety is the point. The overlapping dialogue is just one example of a film that never stops moving, just like Howard’s jaw never stops moving – whether talking, listening, or plotting, his face never rests. It may be exhausting for audience members, but it’s the motion that Howard thrives on, and it’s necessary to create empathy for a character that has little else we can connect with. This dynamic is all the more effective when the directorial siblings flex the quieter muscles they’ve neglected in past efforts. Uncut Gems is at times a more hopeful, softer film, nowhere more so than a Passover celebration with the Ratners’ extended family. Even with the din of family drama reverberating around the house, the Safdies turn the volume down on an emotional scene between Howard and his sick-of-it-all, soon-to-be ex-wife Dinah (Idina Menzel). Howard’s discomfort in that quiet moment is clear, and the film extends it out to the audience, forcing the briefest of reflections during this awkward back-and-forth before picking up the pace for a breakneck final 45 minutes. All of this adds up to one of the most honest depictions of gambling addiction in years, perhaps since Jacques Demy’s playful but depressed Bay of Angels. Howard is full of half-sincere promises: to his wife, his employee-turned-girlfriend Julia (Julia Fox), his father-in-law (Judd Hirsch), and his assistant, Demany (Lakeith Stanfield). He is earnest in the moment, only to be later betrayed by his addiction. Howard Ratner has been keeping nine plates spinning in the air for decades, and Uncut Gems begins just as the first starts to wobble. It is nothing less than inevitable that all nine end up shattered by the end. Like many degenerate gamblers, Howard’s dependence extends to those around him, who he views as supporting players in his lifelong quest for the next adrenaline rush. The Safdies weaponize a slew of emotionally raw performances to desperately convey the human toll of Howard’s disease. Eric Bogosian thrills as Howard’s reluctantly menacing brother-in-law, in a performance that is crucial to the film’s climax. Kevin Garnett slips into the role of a magnified version of himself with ease, completely game for the knowing commentary and subversion of his reputation. But it’s Julia Fox who shines brightest among the supporting players. In her debut role, Fox is the perfect foil to Sandler: under-stated when he exaggerates; soft where he is harsh; self-aware of her sense of innocence where he is oblivious to his perpetual guilt. In particular in a fight scene after Julia’s near-tryst with a touring The Weeknd, Howard and Julia shine as the titular gems: sharp, raw, unfiltered. Full of potential, their imperfections become clear as soon as they are cracked open. Uncut Gems is more than a film about dependence, of course. It’s an effective thriller. It’s also an oblique criticism of the diamond industry – the blood and pain and greed that swarm around it like it’s a black hole. But it works best as a miraculously empathetic portrait of gambling addiction. And in that respect, for those who have either been or known an addict, nothing about Howard’s journey is surprising, nothing is out of place. Sandler, in particular, is the perfect cocktail of mindless arrogance and self-doubt. And his death is both the inescapable end of his downward spiral and the metaphorical destruction of his identity. The money briefly frees him from his many anxieties; that freedom kills the spirit within him. And that’s the secret of the gambler: winning really has nothing to do with winning.