Released: 31st January
Seen: 5th February
Australian release schedules kind of suck… a lot. I’ve mentioned this a lot but it keeps needing to be brought up because it keeps causing me to be about 4 months out of sync with the cinematic zeitgeist and it has no reason to be this bad. Back when films were released by sending out 50 reels and having them go from cinema to cinema it made sense but now we’re in the age where a digital copy of the film can be streamed anywhere around the world instantly and the only thing that keeps certain countries waiting several months is bureaucratic bullshit by movie studios who refuse to follow the advice of Van McCoy and change with the times. Anyway, this is why I didn’t get to see Uncut Gems in December when it was THE thing everyone was talking about and why it wasn’t going to appear on my best-of list last year. I had to wait till the end of January for it to pop up on the local version of Netflix so I could watch it and go “Oh, THAT’S why everyone was talking about this film and saying Adam Sandler deserved awards nominations”
Uncut Gems follows a sleazebag called Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a gambling addict who is constantly trying to pay off his debts and never quite being able to make the payments back, much to the eternal annoyance of Howard’s brother-in-law Arno (Eric Bogosian), a loan shark who loaned Howard $100k and wants it back no matter what. Howard happened to buy a rock with several opals in it that he believes will not only pay back his considerable debt but still be able to turn him a healthy profit so he can feed his gambling addiction… catch is, selling those opals for a price that’ll not only cover his debts but keep him from losing money is harder than he thought and leads to a lot of run-ins not only with Arno but with Arno’s henchmen, who are a lot less calm about the situation than Arno is.
When it comes to building tension, this film ratchets it up so slowly that you don’t even notice that you’re nervously scratching your arm in hopes that one of these schemes is going to work out so that Howard can get out of the hole he’s dug himself. By the end of the movie, it’s almost unbearable, a basketball game turns into a game of Russian roulette with half the chamber loaded and ready to go off at any second. Every new turn just pushes Howard deeper and deeper down into the pits of hell where everything keeps going wrong for him. It’s some incredibly nail-biting drama, nail-biting to the point where I almost bit my finger from how intense things got right near the end.
Most of this rests on the shoulders of a man who I had completely written off. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has looked at Adam Sandler’s output over the last decade and figured that he didn’t have it anymore, that whatever magic he had when he first popped up was long gone and we were now watching someone coasting on their name… and then he pulls this performance out of his ass and slaps me in the face with it. It’s a role that’s almost tailor-made for Adam, a loud guy who pisses everyone off, and he does it perfectly. You watch as he goes through hell, tries to pull every trick in the book and get in the face of anyone who slights him and the entire time it just works. Yeah, his character is annoying but he’s meant to be that way. They found a way to take what makes recent Sandler movies hard to watch and turned it into something compelling. They took the bug and made it a feature and it’s brilliant. You almost forget there are other characters in this film and other big names, even though all of them are doing amazing things, just because Sandler’s performance is like a tidal wave that takes over everything. Every single scene works mostly because his loud irritating character is so compelling, forcing you to not only understand his weird little ticks and compulsions but also making it clear why a lot of people hate him and don’t help him when he genuinely needs it.
Every scene handles tension so well, not wanting to release the audience from it unless they have no choice. The final scene of this film should have a giant moment of tension release, and in any other film it would, but this one pushes through the release and just keeps everything even tenser through an impossibly brilliant score that never does the obvious tricks one might expect. Nothing this film does is the obvious choice, when it’s not pulling off a brilliant slow push-in shot (seriously, the final shot is insanely perfect) it’s coming up with some glorious well thought out cinematography that just captures the viewers eye, another one of their tricks to make you sit there and watch as a man’s life falls apart for your amusement.
No one expected this to be this good, I defy anyone to say that they knew they were getting something this impressive out of Sandler but now I get why this film being snubbed at the Oscars was such a big deal because it’s one of the best films in the last year (and eligible for my 2020 list because release schedules). With a stellar cast and undeniably brilliant writing, Uncut Gems is a very special kind of crime drama that won’t let you go until it’s good and goddamn ready.