Second Sight: Uncut Gems (2019) - Reviewed

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, degenerate gambling addict and arguably the greatest novelist of all time, once wrote that "even as I approach the gambling hall, as soon as I hear, two rooms away, the jingle of money poured out on the table, I almost go into convulsions." For those in its grips, gambling addiction enslaves its sufferers with a unique degradation unknown to any other. Although the lack of a physical "bottom," such as passing out or overdose, may be shared with shopping or hoarding, it is truly the only affliction of its kind to promise a way out no matter how far you keep digging. No alcoholic has ever said, "if I just take one more shot, I'll win my wife and kids back." No cocaine addict has ever said "if I just blow one more rail, my boss will call and offer my job back." But many a gambling addict has said, "if I just place one more bet, I can win everything back that I've lost--and more!" It is this insidious obsession that tragically consumes New York jeweler Howard Ratner (a revelatory Adam Sandler), wreaking havoc on his family and all those around him, in the Safdie Brothers' visionary masterpiece Uncut Gems. It's the crown jewel to finish off 2019, one of the best years for film of this decade, and also one of the greatest films ever made about addiction, yet it will unquestionably prove to be the year's most divisive: you're going to love it or hate it, and precious few will leave the theater ambivalent. 

As for convulsions, those unfamiliar with Josh and Benny Safdie's rough-and-tumble guerrilla-style filmmaking techniques are well advised to buckle up. The Safdies take the viewer on an unrelenting, anxiety-inducing ride for just over two hours, throttling back the tension for only a few brief interludes, barely enabling the audience to catch its breath. The two brothers, raised in an Orthodox Jewish household in Brooklyn, are known for pushing the envelope with their casting, editing, cinematography, and pacing techniques. With Uncut Gems, they're likely to receive a significant number of invoices in the mail from angry theater owners, incensed at the fingernail indentures left in the seats. Their patented signature style is to strap audiences into their seats, and forcibly shove a sensory overload pastiche down their throats through a rusty, tetanus-infected funnel. You're well in your rights to demur if you don't find this appetizing. But for those up for a challenge, the constant barrage is a cinematic experience nothing short of exhilarating. 

When we first meet Diamond District jeweler-to-the-stars Howard Ratner, he is already having a very, very bad day. Few would look forward to starting off their work day with a colonoscopy. Fewer still would enjoy chasing that debasement with a slap to the face from mercurial loan sharks, mere minutes after stepping into the office. You see, Howard has a bit of a problem: he's well over $100,000 in debt to some very disagreeable bookies (one of whom, played to aplomb with stellar pissed-off-ed-ness by the great Eric Bogosian, is a relative by marriage) and they're growing a bit impatient. Howard isn't exactly able to rely on his charming personality to hold the dogs at bay, as he's something of an extremely unlikable Michael Rappaport--a basketball-obsessed Jewish New Yorker prone to blistering rants at exceedingly high volume. Just as he's about to dig himself out of one hole and find himself on solid ground, he picks the shovel back up and keeps digging, making one monumentally bad decision after another, leaving the audience to audibly gasp at times at it wonders how he can possibly do any worse. 

And yet, as irascible and obnoxious as Sandler's bravura performance is, it's nuanced and (arguably) sympathetic enough to leave the audience rooting for him until the end. Be advised: this is NOT an Adam Sandler movie. It's a Safdie Brothers film, starring Adam Sandler. Those who've seen his star turns in Punch Drunk Love and Reign Over Me know he is no stranger to heartbreaking dramatic performances, when he applies himself. When coupled with the Safdies' no-holds-barred direction style, the non-stop barrage of high-decibel screaming matches, phones ringing off the hook, and gangsters at your feet, set to the pulsing high-BPM electronic soundtrack by Oneohtrix Point Never, the result is nothing less than the equivalent of a cinematic heart attack. 

Do not miss Uncut Gems. Do not forget your benzodiazepine of choice. 

--Eugene Kelly