“Uncut Gems” turns 2010s anxiety into great cinema

Daniel Walker


Pandemonium. Chaos. Shoving matches, petty violence, conflict, sex, money, and other things I can’t mention here. No, it’s not a typical Friday night on campus – it’s “Uncut Gems,” the newest thriller from New York-based directors Josh and Benny Safdie.

Since its release at the tail end of last year, “Gems” has won acclaim from critics and audiences alike. The film revolves around Howard Ratner, a jewelry dealer and gambling addict who works in New York’s diamond district. The film follows a few days in Howard’s life as he juggles several increasingly anxiety-inducing situations – unpaid debts, an extra-marital affair, a few very risky bets, and the sale of a rare black opal to basketball player Kevin Garnett (playing himself ). Following Howard through his downward spiral is nerve-wracking, exhausting and frustrating; and I can unconditionally say that it was the best time I had at the movies all year.

Though “Gems” is plenty indebted to the classic narrative tropes of crime film, formally it’s unlike anything else. The Safdies use creative sound design to plunge the viewer right into Howard’s nerve-janglingly chaotic world. There’s scarcely a quiet moment of introspection through the film’s nearly two-and-a-half-hour runtime, but the combination of rat-a-tat dialogue and Daniel Lopatin’s propulsive electronic score create a pulse-pounding immediacy that bests any big-budget blockbuster.

Another curious and compelling aspect of “Gems” is its status as a period piece. The film takes place in 2012, and through nothing more than a couple carefully selected needle-drops and some crafty screenwriting, the Safdies perfectly conjure a world that seems not-so-distantly removed from ours. Smartphones are omnipresent – and, most importantly, integrated into the movie in a way that feels non-clunky. Above all, Howard’s world is one where Everything Is Happening At Once And It Never Stops Happening – and even if you’re not a degenerate gambler who owes money all over town, I think most of us who have lived through the back half of the 2010s can relate to that sentiment.

Most crucially, “Uncut Gems” is a political film, but one that never stoops to the heavy-handed moralizing of a conventional Oscar-bait pic. The film opens with a prologue depicting the Ethiopian miners who unearth the black opal that the rest of the film revolves around, contrasting Howard’s life of privilege with the unrecognized toil that makes his financial recklessness possible. Howard’s compulsive gambling, his desperate delusion that all he needs is one more big payoff, is tied directly to the insidious death-march of capitalism itself. You might find a more damning portrait of our hyper-accelerated, money-dominated era than “Uncut Gems,” but I wouldn’t bet on it.