Chekhov’s gun is an overused trope. There are no hard-and-fast rules in writing: just because there’s a gun on the table in the first act of a story doesn’t mean it inevitably needs to be fired in the third act. But in Uncut Gems, writer-directors Josh and Benny Safdie push the concept to its limits, wringing every ounce of tension out of it. Uncut Gems is so chock-full of Chekhov’s guns, it could arm a small country. Aptly described as a “feature length panic attack,” Uncut Gems gets its anxiety from making the audience wait to see which gun will go off first.
That titular uncut gem is a stone studded with rare black opals, which fast-talking, neurotic New York City jeweler Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) procured by legally questionable means from an Ethiopian mine. He hopes this latest score will be the answer to his numerous problems: He’s a gambling addict in debt to several loan sharks; he and his wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) are separated, but they haven’t yet told their children; his shop-assistant-slash-girlfriend Julia (Julia Fox) took drugs with The Weeknd in a club bathroom; a routine colonoscopy turned up a suspicious-looking nodule that needs a biopsy.
Continuing the metaphor, every time one of those Chekhov’s guns is revealed to be loaded with blanks, Howard pulls another from his waistband and adds it to the pile. He allows Boston Celtics superstar Kevin Garnett (who is so good in this movie, it’ll be a crime if he doesn’t land a starring role soon) to borrow the opal for one game, even though Howard needs to present it to an auction house the next day for an upcoming sale. Then he pawns the NBA championship ring Garnett left him for collateral, and rather than delivering the money to his most aggressive lender, Arno (Eric Bogosian), he bets it all on Garnett and the Celtics. And that’s just one of the threads Howard unravels as he weaves a complicated web of broken promises and unnecessary risk.
The Safdie brothers include just enough details — a broker chiding Howard for returning late to pick up his last pawned treasure, Dinah’s exasperation — to hint that this cycle will continue ad nauseam. Like a true addict, Howard doesn’t care about winning as much as he craves the adrenaline rush that comes with betting it all. That’s clear even before Sandler delivers a sweaty, gut-punching monologue admitting to the dynamic.
Even as Howard screws himself over with blustery bravado, it’s hard not to root for him. It’s a testament to Sandler’s performance, categorically the best of his career, but also to the Safdies’ skill behind the camera. They use tight close-ups, quick cuts, overlapping lines of dialogue, and an electronic soundtrack, by turns buzzy and blaring, to create a sense of claustrophobia. It serves as a kind of extended cinematic anxiety attack, leaving the audience as overwhelmed as Howard. And yet the sheer stakes of his reckless gambles may push them to empathize with him even as he descends into mania.
Howard is sleazy, constantly in peril, and at times downright pathetic. And yet he keeps moving forward, tenaciously and audaciously, outwardly living the life of a high-roller. He surrounds himself with diamond-encrusted Furbies, professional athletes, and Julia, who is unbelievably devoted to him. Yes, the audience is rooting for Howard, but they’ll vary in whether they’re rooting for him to get his shit together, set up a payment plan for his debts, and repair his relationship with his family, or to see him score big when he drops a quarter of a million dollars on the NBA Championship game.
The Safdie brothers don’t seem interested in coming down on either side of that proposal. Uncut Gems shares much of its DNA with the morally ambiguous character pieces of the 1970s that Todd Phillips laments can’t get made these days. (King of the genre Martin Scorsese is an executive producer on this film.) The Safdies have made a career of them, though, most recently bringing out more of Robert Pattinson’s balls-to-the-wall weirdness in the similarly frenzied crime drama Good Time.
The Safdie brothers told Deadline that they based Uncut Gems on stories their dad told them while growing up in Queens. There is an almost folkloric sense to the story, which reads both like a cautionary tale and a beta-male fantasy. Even though Uncut Gems shares the gritty realism of its predecessors, the Safdie brothers inject a tinge of otherworldly mysticism, just enough to complicate the idea that Howard is solely responsible for his misfortunes. His opal stone becomes a sort of spiritual McGuffin, a holy grail for hypebeasts. Kevin Garnett is so drawn to the opal that he practically begs Howard to sell it to him, believing it’s a good omen that will help him win the playoffs.
Toward the beginning of Uncut Gems, the Safdies justify that irresistible allure with a truly breathtaking shot. The camera seems to freefall into the stone, immersing viewers in the gems’ iridescent colors and elegant structure. The score hums like a choir of angels. It’s heaven. Then the colors dull, the structures become squishier, and the camera transforms into a colonoscopy probe exploring Howard’s insides. The final shot of the film does it in reverse, making its way through Howard and back to the opalescent depths. It’s easy to imagine that the whole story takes place, The Grinch-snowflake-style, inside the gem itself, or else that the gem is inside Howard, compelling him forward.
Those last few moments of immersion are a welcome reprieve, a cool down after nearly two and a half hours of clenched fists as Howard unravels his life and then tries to stitch it back together. Spending 134 minutes with him is exhausting. It seems impossible that one man could live his life in this sort of chaos. But Howard is a gambler, addicted to the danger he creates. He can’t help but play Russian roulette with his life, spinning the barrel of Chekhov’s gun faster and faster as he chases that jolt of adrenaline when he pulls the trigger. The Safdie brothers play with that pattern of tension and relief, setting up overlapping calamities like they’re adding bullets to the chamber. And yet when the gun finally goes off, it’s still surprising to everyone — even to Howard himself.
Uncut Gems is in theaters now.