In the city where you age twice as fast, you gotta live twice as fast. Not only do the creases and crevices in every character’s face reflect this, but by the end of the film, your depleted emotional resources and that stabbing ache in your gut do too.
Uncut Gems is the story of a New York gem-dealer with a crippling habit for parlaying his way through life. While weaselling out of the clutches of relentless debt collectors, Howard juggles family duties, an extra-marital affair and obscenely ambitious punts on the Celtics, all with one hand tied behind his back.
Gems is completely foreign in the specificity of its world, yet like all Safdie films, familiar in its place in time. No filmmakers today capture the tumult of modernity quite like they do, as their films exist in this void between the real world and a hyperreality which only they seem able to access. Daniel Lopatin’s score is just as elusive, equal parts baroque, cosmic, tribal and New-York sax; and by some inexplicable genius, it all works.
Sandler’s Howard Rattner, like the Safdie’s, is also a creature of his epoch. Over time, New York City has metamorphosed him into a gnat, one inexplicably drawn to LED, but no longer in possession of the faculties to know why. He’s feebly bug-like in his inability to deny impulses, or to meet them with any form of review. But what the Safdie’s and Sandler so deftly communicate is that Howard’s appetite for material comes not from greed, but a biting insecurity.
Yes, Howard is incorrigible, and while unpalatable to many, I find it telling when audiences label him as ‘unwatchable’. Enslaved by the patterns of electrochemical activity in his brain, of which he has no control over, all of Howard’s urges are met with submission, and any triumph is parlayed. Hence why Uncut Gems not only stands as such a powerfully vivid illustration of an addict, but also why it can be difficult for modern audiences to confront.
When Howard stands in front of his wife, who he is soon to separate with, he delivers a line that epitomises the biggest limitation of his character: ‘look in my eyes and they’ll tell you what I’m feeling’. These are the pleading words of a fast-talking man whose words have lost all power. It is a blind shot in the dark to win his wife’s forgiveness, an attempt to humanely connect by showing vulnerability, an art he has long neglected. As he tries to feign innocence with a look, the shallowness of his gaze is revealed, and his wife erupts in a fit of laughter. Howard has been completely dehumanised by his vices.
The mastery of the Safdie’s is most evident in the way they can provoke empathy for the most distasteful characters with such precision, so succinctly; through a boy’s glance into his cheating father’s apartment, or a middle-aged man in his button-up-shirt standing awkwardly in a club.
They‘ve well and truly dismounted the high-horse which so many of their contemporaries sit upon, and stand barefoot on the grimy New York sidewalk, where materialism isn’t scorned as being superficial, but is a fact of urbanity.
They say that a great ending should be both surprising and inevitable. At the climax, we’re presented with an intersection collision of three drivers, and most impressively, we sincerely believe that each driver was granted the green light of their own bug-like instincts.