Uncut Gems and the Ascension of Adam Sandler’s Howard Ratner

Note: This piece contains spoilers for Uncut Gems.

The transcendent central performance by Adam Sandler, the masterful cacophony of synths and percussion on Daniel Lopatin’s score, the incredible ways it builds and amplifies tension; much has been made of the latest film from Josh and Benny Safdie. A focal point of cultural discourse for months before its general release, it’s easy to forget there’s a beating heart at the center of Uncut Gems underneath the widespread fixation on Sandler’s instantly viral jeweled Furby and the layered aesthetics of the Safdies’ vision of New York. It’s this core that ties everything together and helps the film ascend to true greatness. Bolstered by an unrelenting tension and endless formal pleasures, the film never loses sight of a bigger thesis. 

Each element of the film comes together in harmony to create one of the definitive portrayals of an autistic meltdown in recent memory. The entire feeling of the film is constantly being on the verge of total collapse, with every mistake and regret you’ve ever made creeping up on you with malicious intensity. The sensation of letting your battle with your own mind fade and succumbing to whatever comes after has never been captured so efficiently than it has here. It was obviously not the intent, but Adam Sandler’s previous dramatic work in films such as Punch-Drunk Love and Reign Over Me have contained elements within his performances that are deeply relatable to autistic viewers, and it’s satisfying in hindsight to see one of his films reflect what it’s like to live as an autistic person.

Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is fucked. A relentless gambler and jewelry shop owner who is unsatisfied with the hand that life has dealt him, Howard embellishes himself with notable successes and failures. He’s enough of a name that he can convince basketball superstar Kevin Garnett to come into his shop and consider a purchase, but not enough to keep himself out of perpetual debt. For every good decision that Howard makes, a hundred bad ones follow, and the majority of the film is spent watching him try to untangle these messy threads. The film is subsequently a constant mixture of satisfaction and terror, but through the Safdies and Ronald Bronstein’s clever script, it’s always intensely pleasurable watching Howard navigate his way through tightrope situations as anxiety looms that he’s about to tip over the edge and plummet to his death. The con that defines the narrative of Gems is the arrival of a rare Ethiopian opal–which as we’re shown in a vivid intro sequence, came from the backbreaking labor of workers there–and Howard’s attempts to auction it off (and keep it in his possession) amidst the impending presence of debt collectors hired by his brother-in-law, external interested buyers, and Howard’s own need to continue gambling.

The textures of New York here are abrasive and seedy, but also strangely comforting. There is calmness in the familiarity of these specific blocks and types of people even as the film is crescendoing. Filthy streets and loud sirens become the reminders of life, in capturing the sensation of community and culture in just a few blocks that go unrecognized by most of the world. 

At its finest, the Safdies key in on a beautiful seediness of a tiny wrestling show, with the smells of sweat and blood infecting everything, watching a man be destroyed repeatedly by a force bigger and more powerful than him. It might be inevitable that he loses, but for a moment or two, all of these people within these walls unite together, cheering for him as it seems like every adversity can be overcome. It might be hard to get accustomed to but once you’re fully immersed in this space, there’s a comfort impossible to get anywhere else. It might all end in carnage but those seconds of belief–of devoted faith in the underdog–are a feeling that keeps someone motivated through every hardship and stressor thrown their way.

For extremely good reason, Sandler’s performance has been universally praised as he arguably gives the defining performance of his career. Using his boundless charisma to charm his way into convincing everyone that he’s got everything under control and presenting an argument for his reliability, he at first succeeds despite the mounting evidence against him as a trustworthy person. Sandler’s comedic timing is on full display with certain reactions and line deliveries ranking up there with the funniest moments in his entire filmography. Yet, there is this quiet, childlike innocence to Howard that is reminiscent of his character work in the late ‘90s–an adult who isn’t truly ready or prepared for the pressures of the real world, and who just wants to engage with his emotions and desires even as they’re counter to his survival instincts. Beyond his presentation of flashy jewelry and his captivating smile, Sandler plays Howard as a scared man who just wants to be somebody–to finally have the life he’s always wanted. 

A more complicated figure than at first glance, the women in Howard’s life are unexpectedly the characters who clarify Howard’s nuances and help build the audience sympathy for our lead. When we first see Julia (Julia Fox, in one of the best performances of 2019) she comes across as the typical mistress in American crime pictures such as this one, yet the Safdies and Fox make sure to never dismiss her as just an archetype. Their dynamic is sweet, built around genuine chemistry and love for each other in spite of all of their differences. It could have just been based around aesthetics, but the work is visible to ensure it’s seen as a real partnership. Fox and Sandler work brilliantly together, clicking perfectly in flirtatious and casual dialogue exchanges, nailing the little gestures of quiet intimacy with one another, and delivering the bombastic moments that characterize the film. A perfect moment between the two is also one of the funniest as we see Julia’s desperation to make Howard forgive her by getting a tattoo of his face on her body as he breaks down in tears in the realization that she can no longer get buried with him anymore. It shows the absurd dedication and hilarity of how much they care for each other, willing to think in terms of permanence and the afterlife even as the situation is so inherently comedic.

This raw, emotional dynamic continues with Howard and his wife Dinah (Idina Menzel). Instead of his relationship with Julia being an affair that he carries on behind her back, there is acknowledgment and a confrontation about the fact that they don’t love each other any more and that things between them are close to being over. An argument in the kitchen after a disastrous night out lacks the typical venom of the arguments in the rest of the film, instead leaving behind only tired disappointment and bitterness as the same mistakes are repeated. The resignation present in Sandler’s face as he processes the knowledge that he’ll never be the man that she needs him to be is heartbreaking. It adds another layer of empathy for Howard, even if he does a number of things that wouldn’t make him a traditionally sympathetic character in alternate circumstances. The romantic relationships he has plainly don’t comply with traditional expectations of cinematic objectification–there is an uncommon warmth and sadness in every scene he has with both these women, showing all three to be fully-embodied characters. 

One of the best character beats coincides with the Safdies’ usage of period detail–the utilization of The Weeknd circa 2012 as a plot point and character within the film. While he’s not the only major celebrity playing a past version of themselves completely straight, his appearance leads to some of the funniest and most memorable moments. The Weeknd’s mythology as a performer is built around the idea of his ambivalence toward the world, and his attempts to fill an incredible void with alcohol, cocaine, and all the women in the world. Regardless of the real life of Abel Tesfaye, the persona of The Weeknd is built around dissatisfaction and the need to keep indulging in all his worst impulses to keep himself breathing, even if it leads to a premature ending. He is the perfect figure to contrast with Sandler, who is also driven by his worst impulses and desire for hedonism, but is nonetheless constantly optimistic about the next pursuit being fulfilling. The beautiful thing is that he finds it by the end–a moment of perfect bliss. It’s also an astonishing commitment to Trilogy-era Weeknd by the Safdies that his key moments are built around him doing coke, trying to fuck someone’s girl, and getting into a pointless fight while high–perfect work in cementing the time period as accurate. 

The score is just as important as any character choice, conveying the feeling of anxiety through texture and sonics. Lopatin’s work as Oneohtrix Point Never has become notorious amongst electronic music fans for lingering in nightmarish moods, distorting sounds and shrieks into soundtracks for personal darkness. Outside of his disturbing side, he is a genius composer who uses unexpected instruments and objects to create wondrous music, commanding organs and looping electronic melodies to form a unique aura of ambiance. His ear for composition and building atmosphere makes him a perfect partner for the Safdies. Lopatin coalesces his disparate musical voices into single LPs that constantly feel like they could go in any direction, much like Howard’s character. The almost upbeat synth lines warp and gain in speed in moments of high octane drama as heavy percussion infects the background of Howard’s breakdowns to signify doom. Most importantly, Lopatin’s masterful control of emotion means that the score is able to capture the peaceful melancholy of a man’s final moments, stripping away every layer for a floating minimalist sound that’s the perfect accompaniment for Sandler’s eternal gaze. 

Uncut Gems ends with one of the most genius structural devices in any thriller this millennium: the incorporation of a real basketball game involving Kevin Garnett from 2012 as the central focus of Howard’s success. He has put everything on one final bet, and has succumbed to the euphoria of his addiction for the last time. The film cuts between archival footage of the game on faded televisions, Julia assisting Howard in a casino with placing all the necessary bets, and Howard himself locked up with his debtors in his claustrophobic jeweler’s store. The joy that Sandler shows as he gets more and more invested in the game, the impossible odds becoming more and more achievable by the second is some of his finest acting of the decade. It’s just as wonderful to witness his brother-in-law (Eric Bogosian), desperate to extort Howard for his owed money, and eventually joining him in a gradual fit of outrageous excitement as the game gets closer and closer to the end. As the game ends with victory, Howard finally wins the money he’s been working toward and the Safdies crosscut between Howard’s reactions, Garnett’s post-game celebrations, his kids cheering, and Julia escaping the casino and with cash in hand.

For a tiny moment, all tension escapes our body as we get caught up in this spiritual delight, making the viewer susceptible to the bullet that gets put in Howard’s head. One can’t escape destiny forever. There’s only so many times a person can cheat the devil before he comes to take them. 

There is that sudden thud, an entire film’s runtime of tension being extinguished and reignited in quick succession, as more violence is committed and the store is left soaked with blood. Instead of the Safdies deciding to cut to screams or the key members of Howard’s life discovering his death, they center on little moments of joy. Ending the movie with shots of the happiness of the people in his life, focusing the mood on the beauty they’re experiencing in these moments instead of the pain that will follow is a brilliant decision. Julia’s smile as she knows she’s helped pull off a defining moment in her life; Dinah looking annoyed but safe with her kids; little cuts to the most important people to show that their existence doesn’t stop with Howard. 

He was important to them–for better and for worse–and his death will cause them devastation, but the Safdies keep them framed in these periods of time forever. The audience will never see them break down or suffer or have their dreams crushed. They exist eternally in the moments where their lives are beautiful, where things are okay. After everything he’s done–the people he’s hurt and screwed over–there is still a mysticism to his existence, the beauty within his body and soul. 

The camera zooms into his glasses and reveals the entire universe through the bullet hole, a collection of colors and clusters swirling around inside his soul. Lopatin’s score captures the sensation of witnessing breathtaking beauty that one can’t quite describe, just allowing oneself to be taken away by its wonders. Eventually, the camera stops its journey and pans up to a shot of the night sky. Regardless of all the stresses and shit that Howard brought to the world, he is a part of the universe, destined to experience whatever lies beyond this world as something more than trash–more than a jeweler who loved to gamble. He was given his perfect moment, the one that he’d chased his entire life to experience–and now he gets to drift amongst the lights. The entire universe present within the body of one man. The pain of his death is replaced by the gratefulness of him having existed at all, thinking about the modicum of good he brought to the world, and lingering on the stars as the credits roll.

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