Chances are, if you have heard anything about UNCUT GEMS, from co-writers and directors Benny and Josh Safdie, it’s that you may very well have a panic attack while watching it. I am here to say that this motion picture absolutely lives up to the hype. I watched this film by myself, with nobody around me to share in the nervous energy, and I was still on the edge of my seat, struggling to catch a breath for the entire runtime. I imagine that viewing this feature in a packed theater with a fully invested audience would be quite the experience, to say the least.
As for the early Oscar buzz surrounding Adam Sandler, this is also wholly justified. Certainly a far cry from abysmal projects like JACK AND JILL, GROWN-UPS 2, and THE RIDICULOUS 6, Sandler gets back on track with a stellar performance in the lead role as Howard Ratner. Ratner is a pasty, yet suave and manipulative gambling addict. He constantly cheats on his wife, and finds more importance in the high of winning a massive bet rather than developing a true relationship with his family. Yet, he is also extremely vulnerable and insecure. The dramatic acting chops of Sandler really shine in these quieter moments of regret.
Over the course of the narrative, you begin to wonder how in the world Ratner dug such a deep hole for himself. He owes so many different people money, favors, and collateral that you feel the palpable anxiety creeping through the screen and into your body and soul. I am not kidding, prepare yourself.
The Safdie Brothers and co-writer Ronald Bronstein laid the foundation with a killer script, but the cinematography (Darius Khondji), musical score (Daniel Lopatin), and sound design are responsible for breaking the dam and opening the floodgates of apprehension. The grainy 35 MM film feels like a throwback to 1970s gangster flicks like Scorsese’s MEAN STREETS. The sound mix is intentionally cacophonic, almost creating a surreal atmosphere, as if the viewer is merely a passerby witnessing the chaos unfold. The music is dominated by grinding, trippy synthesizers. Digital visual effects are used sparingly, but to great impact, especially in the opening title sequence and the final frame of the film. You will know it when you see it. As for the editing (Benny Safdie and Bronstein), I was amazed at the immaculate pacing. UNCUT GEMS feels like an hour-long television episode, rather than a 135-minute feature-length film. I was so utterly engrossed in the story, the characters, and the suspenseful situations, that checking my watch was not even an option.
What the Safdie Brothers have crafted with UNCUT GEMS is creative, inventive, and imaginative, while still drawing influence from familiar components. This film is the perfect balance of originality and innovation. I look forward to seeing where the Safdie Brothers go from here on out in the filmmaking business.