Uncut Gems is chaos — a thrilling, exhausting brand of chaos molded by the jittery urgency of the protagonist’s every decision. The film portrays a self-destructive bender of entropic personal one-upmanship which constantly seems to be folding in on itself and yet is apparently always on the brink of glorious victory.
The film follows Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a high profile — if somewhat washed-up — New York City jeweler and sports gambling addict. The titular stone is an illicitly procured opal specimen extracted from an Ethiopian mine at Ratner’s direction. The stone has a certain cosmic quality which catches the attention of Boston Celtics star Kevin Garnett during the 2012 NBA Finals. Ratner’s efforts to sell the gem for an acceptable price, pay off a debt and win a high-stakes bet centered on Garnett’s performance in game seven of the Finals, while maintaining a suburban family life and an affair with an employee, propel his string of lies, deceits and ill-advised deals. Directors Josh and Benny Safdie (Good Time, Heaven Knows What) maximize the impact of Ratner’s manufactured chaos by blending cool, lucid aesthetics with grating sequences of dialogue featuring more interlocutors than is suitable for comprehension in a series of wild, frenetic confrontations.
The sensation of witnessing the rapid degradation of Ratner’s circumstances and the increasingly high-stakes of his every action is akin to the experience of watching Netflix’s Fyre Festival documentary Fyre, which follows entrepreneur and fraudster Billy McFarland’s manic efforts to host a high-profile music festival, even while his preparations crumble. Each film is a race against time — the tension of McFarland’s dire scenario is worsened by the impending arrival of hundreds of influencers, while overlapping deadlines and an NBA game-clock pace Ratner’s turbulent life — and both McFarland and Ratner refuse to be defeated, making progressively chancier gambles until the rug is pulled from beneath them. The true to life events and people at the center of Uncut Gems, including broadcast footage of the NBA Finals and appearances by The Weeknd, ground the action in a kind of liminal reality that lends the film somewhat of a documentary-feel.
Two trippy, etherial sequences that juxtapose long, panning camera movements that navigate the gem’s colorful interior with unsightly gastroscopic imagery ally the cosmic presence of the stone with Ratner’s own mortality. Whether the stone actually possesses any kind of mystical presence is ambiguous; and while initially appraised by Ratner to be worth over one million dollars, it becomes unclear whether the stone is worth anything near that amount, further obscuring reality and Ratner’s fantasy-chaos.
The film’s emphasis of collapse, misfortune and meaninglessness in the face of an unknowable universe reflect a bleak outlook on a crazy, senseless world. The Safdie brothers, whose previous film Good Time featured a similarly chaotic run of desperation and deceit, breath reckless energy into the enigmatic Ratner, a man who seemingly lives for the adrenaline rush of high stakes decisions and life-or-death scenarios.