Basketball is one of the most anxiety-inducing sports there is, a culmination of small wins and looses which all lead up to the final score, undetermined until the clock hits zero. It’s hard to tell which way it’ll go until the momentum shifts. Of course, this is also why it’s exhilarating to watch. The Safdie Brothers have crafted Uncut Gems into a basketball game like no other — add gambling on top of that, and the brothers have created the perfect cocktail of tension, dread, and adrenaline.
Starring Adam Sandler, Uncut Gems follows Howard Ratner, a New York jeweler with a love for basketball, gambling, and making high-stake, self-destructive bets. Howard’s constant betting drives the tension of the film, but it’s painfully impossible to look away. Sandler infuses such charisma in Howard that every terrible decision Howard makes feels like moments of (unearned) hope. As Howard’s belief in his good fortune rises, so does ours, even if the reality is a more desperate cling to believing in a higher power.
A mystical sheen the surface of the film wears manages to mask some of the more insidious natures lying beneath. The opening and closing scenes push into the DNA of the gems that fascinate and entice not just Howard, but NBA player Kevin Garnett (Kevin Garnett), and in turn, the audience as well. Daniel Lopatin’s harrowing score lulls you into the mythic qualities and promises of the luck fortune can bring you before rattling you out of your stupor and straight into an anxious state. The Safdie Brothers never allow us to stay in that safe space for long before harshly reminding us of the reality of the situations Howard’s walked into as the tension kicks in, even if Howard himself is oblivious.
Howard may fly too close to the sun, but Uncut Gems is about more than just the pitfalls of going too far. There’s tragedy, but there’s also wins. The Safdie Brothers make sure there’s enough of each to drive the impact of both up further, going back and forth with each, like the score of a basketball game, all culminating in a climatic finish right as the buzzer sounds. The momentum shifts, and suddenly, the rules have changed.
Bolstered by great performances from Sandler, Garrett, and LaKeith Stanfield, Uncut Gems will have you on the edge of the seat the entire time. It’s the year’s most anxiety-inducing film, but we can’t look away even if we tried.