Sometimes a film is so energetic it's like a triple-shot of espresso injected straight into your veins. At this year's Toronto International Film Festival, that film was Uncut Gems, a movie so high-energy and stressful your hands will sweat for hours after you leave the theater.
The NYC-based independent filmmakers known as the Safdie brothers have made several movies about down-on-their-luck guys with an affinity for making one terrible decision after another. Their newest film, Uncut Gems, is in a similar vein. It quickly becomes an endurance test for the audience, as it continuously pushes your willingness to watch someone having the absolute worst time of their life. That may sound awful, but the experience of watching a Safdie brothers movie is like riding a roller coaster. It's an adrenaline-spiked gauntlet from which you can’t escape, but when you come out on the other side, you feel glad you took the ride.
The duo's latest target is Howard (Adam Sandler), a jeweler in New York who acquires a rare Ethiopian black opal through shady means. Howard is convinced this will be an easy sell--after all, NBA star Kevin Garnett (playing himself) becomes obsessed with the gem the moment he lays eyes on it. Howard desperately needs to sell it, as he's neck-deep in debt to some muscle-heavy collectors who keep threatening to break his legs, and he spends all the money he earns through his store on sports bets. Instead of simply selling the gem and paying his debts, however, he borrows the money he’s planning on making before the sale and bets it on a Celtics game--hoping the earnings will be enough to pay off the creditors and also buy his wife's (Idina Menzel) and mistress's (Julia Fox) affection.
A big part of the fun--and the tension--of Uncut Gems comes from Sandler's performance. The famous comedian delivers his best performance since Punch-Drunk Love, utilizing his man-child persona with a squawking voice and knack for shouting every other line to embody the role of a man who thinks himself to be the only swindler in a room full of hustlers. Credit should go to both Sandler's sympathetic performance and the Safdies' directing, as they manage to make the audience feel bad for Howard. No matter how deep in trouble he gets, to hate on him would be like kicking a man when he's down--only this man thinks he is at the very top.
The great performances extend to the rest of the cast. Special credit should go to Kevin Garnett, who makes an impressive feature debut playing off his NBA stardom by acting like a junkie every time he lays his eyes on the black opal, descending into an obsessive frenzy that matches Sandler's exaggerated mannerisms.
Cinematographer Darius Khondji gives us courtside tickets to the madness unfolding around Howard, getting up close and personal as wave after wave of overlapping dialogue makes the New York of Uncut Gems seem not only real and lived-in, but chaotic. Filmed in actual New York City, Uncut Gems pays meticulous detail to the frantic life of the city and the tight community that runs Manhattan's Diamond District, showing us the day to day life of the owners of the tiny stands and stores where everyone knows each other. Cameos by real people (asides from Garnett's presence, The Weeknd also has a cameo) help make this feel like a real version of New York. Khondji's kinetic camerawork feels like an extension of Howard's energy, moving as quick as Howard can throw insults at the people around him, not giving the audience a moment to catch their breath, as we're meant to feel just as anxious and exhausted as Howard.
The almost ethereal, synth-heavy score by Daniel Lopatin helps give the movie a sense of heightened reality, one that is even messier than ours, with enthralling, captivating sounds. Even if you don't think of Uncut Gems as a movie that would rely on visual effects, the cosmic beauty of the Ethiopian black opal is fully explored as an otherworldly aesthetic that fascinates everyone who comes into contact with it. Probably the best scene of the movie involves a look at the microscopic world inside the gem, which Khondji shoots full of color and wonder, right before it turns into something way nastier--just like Howard’s world.
Uncut Gems is an endurance test. It's a thrill ride that wants you to see how long you can keep watching an irritating man make stupid decisions before pulling all of the hair off your head. And the Safdie brothers aren’t interested in paying this off with a calm, rewarding finale. This is Howard’s world, and it is a cruel place that punishes those who try to pull one over on it. Walking out of the theater, the movie's stress and tension will remain with you for a while. This is not a feel-good movie, but one that leaves you with the sensation that you just experienced two filmmakers and a star at the height of their craft. Uncut Gems will get your heart pumping from 0 to 80 in seconds, and it will be hard to forget such an achievement.