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Film Review: Uncut Gems (2020)

Uncut Gems (2020) is a crime thriller film distributed by A24, becoming one of the highest-grossing films of their catalogue. Directed by Josh and Benny Safdie, this film stars Adam Sandler and Idina Menzel, with performances from up-and-coming actress Julia Fox and basketball star Kevin Garnett playing himself. Jeweller and gambler Howard Ratner (Sandler) is placed in a situation where he has to sell an extremely expensive Ethiopian gem in order to pay off all of his debts to fellow colleagues and partners.

Uncut Gems (2020) - source: A24
Uncut Gems (2020) – source: A24

Adam Sandler gives the performance of his career here, transitioning from his comedies into a role that he truly embodies. This is not a standard role in any thriller or drama piece, his character is extremely eccentric and has a mind of his own, and he has to walk a fine line between becoming overdramatic and over-the-top, but also portraying a mad man in this situation. He does this with ease as it is hard to walk away from the film and not think about Sandler’s performance.

In fact, not one person here gives a bad performance as everyone is given a moment to shine. Kevin Garnett is surprising in an extended cameo that feels somehow natural to the situation and gives a strong performance, considering his lack of experience. Julia Fox shines here, in a role in which she has to match the calibre of Sandler as a partnership. She is also asked a lot of her here for a debut role, but she manages to give her all and look seamless doing it. My favourite supporting role, however, may be from Idina Menzel. She isn’t given as much to do as I would have liked, but she steals any scene that she is in and this is such a different role for her to take. I would love to see her take more risks in films like these because she’s outstanding here.

What I appreciate about the Safdie brothers here is how much of a risk they took with the screenplay. Instead of easing us in with an introduction, we are thrown straight into the situation. The opening sequence is shocking to watch and highlights a big problem with workers in Ethiopia and other African countries of that industry, but moving on from there you are left with no breathing space. The film never takes a break, it is one event after the other. This is a major factor in building tone for this film, which is filled to the brim with tension.

Uncut Gems (2020) - source: A24
Uncut Gems (2020) – source: A24

I said in a tweet immediately after the film finished that this is the tensest I have been watching a film since Whiplash, and I still stand by that. This is not done only by the performances and the script, but the use of the sound. It is overwhelmingly loud, and a key factor in why so many people are disliking the film. It is loud to the point that it can end up giving you a headache, and I cannot imagine how intense it would have been at a cinema screening. For me, it only added to the themes and the mood of the film, helping me engage in the story and feeling like I was in the moment fearing almost for my own life. I can see why this may be a major turn off for some people, but I do not see the film being as effective as it is without it.

There are some great side plots written in the script, particularly around Howard and his family life. I particularly like the fact that there is an entire scene here focused on Jewish traditions, something that is basically never seen in films of this size. This is perhaps one of my favourite scenes in the film, also because it is the one moment in the film that the audience is given room to breathe and take in the moment as it is. It does not drag on for too long, feels vital to the story and gives an unheard group of voices in the film industry like this time to shine.

There is one issue I had with the film, and this is just a personal note, that made me feel disconnected from the film: Howard Ratner is not a good person. All of these horrible things are happening to Howard, and yet I almost liked how everything was going badly for him. The tension is there, due to the script and how you are placed in the scene, but it also leaves you feeling cold for him and everyone helping him out because he is just that unlikable. Most people want Howard to stop doing what he is doing so he can improve, but I never saw that in him. He just seemed like a character destined to go down further and further for me, and I never saw any sympathy or potential in him. If I had that extra time perhaps with his family or any scenes of him improving and not being an addict, I may have become warmer to him as a character. Maybe he was written to be that bad, but I would have liked him to have some moral code in him.

Uncut Gems (2020) - source: A24
Uncut Gems (2020) – source: A24

This is a film I will not be rushing to watch again any time soon, due to the stress it caused me during the first watch, but this is a technically strong film with Sandler back and better than ever in his dramatic roles. I can see why people may end up disliking this film, from the heavy use of sound to the tone and pacing throughout, but I was genuinely pleased with this film and how bold the Safdie brothers were to create something of this style. If you can handle the stress for a two-hour runtime, this is definitely worth checking out, especially since it is available on Netflix internationally now and in cinemas in the US.


Have you had a chance to check out Uncut Gems yet? Did you enjoy what the film had to offer, or did the experience just take too much out of you? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section and let’s have a discussion.

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