In 1992, Abel Ferrara directed Bad Lieutenant, a film in which a crooked NYPD cop played by Harvey Keitel smokes crack, sexually assaults teenagers, and gambles on baseball while trying to solve the rape of a nun. The film became a punk cinema classic of New York scum and set a standard in which Harvey Keitel demanded to be filmed fully nude in all subsequent roles.
Uncut Gems, the new film from Benjamin and Joshua Safdie — aka the Safdie Brothers — (who previously gave us a manic Robert Pattinson in Good Times) is a spiritual heir to Bad Lieutenant that somehow manages to give us all the unhinged, life-on-the-edge energy of the original with little of the sensationalism. No one needs to rape a nun or smoke crack for Uncut Gems to give you a panic attack. It thrums with the kind of underworld energy and sketchy hustle that most people assumed died in the early Giuliani era. Anchoring the whole thing is, of all people, Adam Sandler. It’s a remarkable work of feral filmmaking that makes everything else feel domesticated by comparison.
Leave it to the Safdie Brothers — (and their long-time collaborator, Ronald Bronstein, credited as co-writer) to rediscover New York’s dangerous side. They famously shot Heaven Knows What guerilla-style while one of their lead actors was technically a fugitive. In Uncut Gems, Sandler pays Howard Ratner, a character apparently inspired by the Safdies’ eccentric Syrian-Jewish father’s time as a jewel runner in New York City’s diamond district. Ratner is trying to run his bling business (he has one necklace featuring a diamond-encrusted Gizmo from Gremlins and another with Michael Jackson posed on a crucifix) while heading two households: one with his wife and kids, the other with his scenester mistress. Naturally, he owes money all over town. His various creditors keep showing up unannounced, screwing up other “business opportunities” and occasionally roughing him up, including a pair of Extremely Serious-Looking Mob Dudes, played by Keith Williams Richards and Tommy Kominik. Among other things, the Safdies have a rare gift for terrifyingly authentic casting.
At the center of it all is a rare black opal Howard has acquired from Ethiopia that Kevin Garnett comes to believe has magical powers. Oh yeah, ex-NBA star Kevin Garnett is in this too — playing himself. As is The Weeknd, who Howard’s mistress, Julia (played by Julia Fox) apparently has a thing for, much to Howard’s chagrin. Through it all, Howard is a manic, unsettling personality who never quits while he’s ahead and never leaves well enough alone. He can’t. Any time he senses an opportunity he doubles and triples down, even if it means leveraging himself to the hilt to do so. “If you ain’t gambling, you ain’t living,” seems to be his basic worldview.
Thanks to his lifestyle, he’s constantly surrounded by flakes, fakes, schemers, and ruthless predators, including his would-be middleman to the sports world, Demany (a perfect as always Lakeith Stanfield) and his creditor/relative, Arno (Eric Bogosian). Having to explain to his wife (Idina Menzel) how he ended up naked inside his own car trunk at his daughter’s recital is just part of doing business. It’s the juxtaposition of the mundane and the life-and-death in Howard’s life that makes Uncut Gems so compelling, a rare combination of breathtakingly intense and wickedly funny. Like having to explain why he resurfaced his pool to some giant goombahs who might bury him alive. It’s likewise a contrast of well-known people like Sandler and Garnett playing against type and intensely authentic character actors playing what seem like the only roles someone with their personae could play. A guy like Keith Williams Richards streamlines the writing process. His backstory is written right on his face.
All the while, the Safdies’ shooting style — jittery, almost fidgeting camera work, combined with cacophonous, overlapping dialogue like working-class David Mamet — have the same effect as Howard’s disquieting persona: constant fight-or-flight. You never get to catch your breath. Watching Uncut Gems is a little like having your adrenal glands milked for two hours.
Yet the Safdie Brothers’ goal seems larger than mere provocation, which is what makes Uncut Gems a great movie rather than a merely good one. Kevin Garnett keeps hassling Howard to get him to admit how much he paid the Ethiopians for his stone versus how much he ended up selling it for, and badgering him about why he had to try to make a big score instead of just paying them a fairer price and making a modest profit. Howard asks, “I’ve seen you play. Why don’t you just stop scoring when you’re up by 20 in the playoffs? I’m not an athlete, this is my sport. I do it for the same reason you do,” he says.
That is, he tries to maximize profit as a fuck you to anyone who doubted him. To anyone that needs to hear it, really. It’s proof of his self-worth. It’s a self-serving explanation, of course, but it says a lot about Howard and people like him, and it gets to the root of what makes him.
For as much as Uncut Gems is a worthy successor to Bad Lieutenant in terms of adrenaline, constant danger, and the thrill of sports gambling (it’s weird to find yourself pumping your fists to NBA playoff footage from 2012 just because a movie character bet on it), in some ways it’s a more complete movie. The Safdies have an affinity, affection, and insight into their protagonist that make their film more than just a cinematic snort of cocaine. Which isn’t to say that Uncut Gems doesn’t work perfectly well as cinematic cocaine.