The characters in Uncut Gems are busy. We see them from the side, metaphorically and often literally, brushing past the viewer, utterly absorbed in the complex and frantic business of living their lives. The camera’s narrative eye just drops into the middle of their confusing, interwoven existences, and watches as they get on with it. This is an impression which I imagine is very difficult to achieve, as very few narrative films manage to, including some which seem to be trying. It is also, of course, a thoroughly artificial effect, secured through a great deal of skill and effort from all involved.
This kind of febrile, loquacious naturalism has many antecedents in American movies. I’m no cinéaste, and there are doubtless better examples, but I was reminded of John Cassavetes, and of Martin Scorcese’s Mean Streets, with their detailed, improvisational dialogue and cinéma vérité influenced cinematography. It felt like what I would anticipate seeing if Mike Leigh unexpectedly opted to direct an American crime caper, although the cinematographic technique is quite different. Josh and Benny Safdie largely directed cinematographer Darius Khondji to eschew that sort of close-in, hand-held filming, however, opting instead for extended shots that follow the action, frequently from a way off, through longer lenses than are often deployed in dramas. Even in moments of emotional intensity, the camera keeps its distance, as though witnessing the action by chance. All of this produces an effect much closer to documentary than the now overused techniques of vérité would permit.
The effect of filming a thriller in this way is to foreground the characters, while the plot recedes in importance. In fact, I didn’t really experience it as a thriller at all, but as a drama about some characters involved in a screwed-up, toxic situation. Adam Sandler as the shallow and self-deceiving jeweller Howard Ratner (geddit?) is disturbingly convincing, in a role which allows him to flex his comedy muscles without being overtly satirical. The non-stop action/dialogue (I’m not sure the two can really be distinguished in this case), and the high-stakes plot constructed from continual disasters and bad calls, makes for an intense, gripping movie. It would be stressful viewing, but Sandler’s character, while continually entertaining, is such a complete dick that I found I didn’t care much if bad things were going to happen to him.
To make the protagonist dislikeable is a pretty courageous decision for a director, but the whole story is like a slow-motion car-crash, from which it’s impossible to look away. There is a wide range of well-drawn supporting characters—Julia Fox is outstanding as Ratner’s mistress/employee—including several public figures playing themselves, notably the basketball player Kevin Garnett, and the rapper The Weeknd. The setting is important as well, presenting Manhattan’s Diamond District as a self-contained world with its own culture and traditions. This sense of a world-within-a-world enhances the claustrophobia of the careering narrative, which hurtles from crisis to crisis until it ends, as arbitrarily as a road accident, but not unexpectedly. If only some of these characters could have looked up, just once, and seen the world around them, I felt things might have turned out better.
This jumble of happenstance and random incident which the film convinces us we are seeing (although it is very carefully plotted) feels far more mimetic for me than any narrative that presents a ‘meaningful’ character arc. A movie like this is a tissue of sophisticated artifice, but the Safdies are using that artifice to represent the experience of living in a way which is altogether more similar to my own than I am used to seeing in the cinema. Not that I have any experience of the diamond trade, or any of the other fucked-up, money-centred lives shown in Uncut Gems, but I have experience of experience, and the tone of this film resonates with that. We may see the characters mainly in (metaphorical) profile, but it’s very easy to imagine looking out through their eyes.