If there’s one thing that immediately grabs your attention in the opening scene of “Uncut Gems” on Netflix, it’s the chaos. We find ourselves in a mine in Ethiopia, witnessing the aftermath of an accident that has left one worker with a broken leg. The cries, the tears, the blood – they paint a vivid picture of the harsh reality faced by the Ethiopian workers and their Chinese bosses. From these mines emerges a black opal that will become the obsession of Adam Sandler’s character, Howard Ratner, in New York. This captivating gem sets the stage for a thrilling and pulse-pounding film by the talented Safdie brothers, Ben and Joshua. Yet, beyond its gripping narrative, “Uncut Gems” serves as a powerful reflection on the seemingly stable but deeply chaotic system of capitalism, teetering on the edge of a precipice.
The Precious Gem that Drives Obsession
In a matter of minutes, the film masterfully establishes its narrative and formal foundations. The prologue seamlessly blends with the main plot, all centered around the opal’s vibrant colors. We see the gem literally within the depths of Howard Ratner, the protagonist undergoing medical tests in a hospital. This transition, with the opal as the connecting thread, symbolizes the profound obsession that consumes Ratner. He has spent months acquiring the precious stone illegally through his contacts in Ethiopia, only to have it constantly slipping through his fingers. This gem’s allure extends to basketball player Kevin Garnett (playing himself), who believes it will bring him victory and is willing to pay a hefty sum for it. Howard needs this financial gain to sustain his insatiable desire for wealth, which constantly eludes him.
The Materialistic Microcosm
Within this consumer-driven microcosm, the accumulation of material possessions reigns supreme. Everything is traded, not always with cash, in a bartering system that pushes the characters to their limits. This narrative device, expressed through dynamic visual and script elements, accurately depicts the film’s setting – New York’s “District Diamond” – and the predominantly Jewish community that inhabits it (many of whom act as extras). The Safdie brothers drew inspiration from their father’s experiences in the city’s diamond trading business, infusing the project, a decade in the making, with the unmistakable imprint of Jewish traditions. However, as noted by The New Yorker critic Richard Brody, this influence is more tonal than narrative.
According to the filmmakers themselves, Howard’s character offers a tangible link to the stereotypes imposed on Jews during the Middle Ages, when the Church excluded them from society. Their only means of asserting their individuality and humanity was through material consumption – a history that has left deep ancestral trauma. This reading adds richness to the film, reminding us that even a marginalized community can contribute to a society built on the suffering of others.
Anxiety at the Edge
Beneath its surface, “Uncut Gems” offers profound reflections on the contemporary world. However, its primary objective is to immerse us in the constant anxiety of living on the brink of a heart attack. We experience the same adrenaline rush as Howard when he risks everything on a single gamble, making promises he can’t keep, selling irresistible scams, and clinging to a golden Furby (an iconic symbol in the film) as if it were the most valuable object in the world. Sandler’s extraordinary performance guides us through this journey fueled by men’s ambition. The film aims to evoke in viewers the same intoxicating euphoria felt by compulsive gamblers, as they anxiously discover whether they have won big or lost everything. It connects the foundations of capitalism with a kind of spirituality that emanates from its very functioning – a spirituality that these characters cannot escape, even if they wanted to.
A Masterpiece in Motion
Like their previous film, “Good Time,” the Safdie brothers have created something truly unique and stress-inducing. “Uncut Gems” moves at such a fast pace that it scarcely allows for reflection. Yet, it encapsulates intricate ideas about the modern world, from a small-scale perspective that feels universal. It builds bridges between socioeconomic systems, religion, masculinity, and the weight of history, all while hurtling forward at a frenetic pace. The Safdie brothers themselves are like uncut diamonds, constantly refining their craft with each new production. With “Uncut Gems,” they have firmly secured their place on the map, delivering one of the best films of 2020.
To experience the exhilarating thrill of “Uncut Gems,” watch it on Ratingperson.