For a four-minute sequence in the new film “Uncut Gems,” Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) can’t open a door. He tries pressing buttons, using hammers and pouring metal shavings into a lock until he finally manages to pry it open and allow his customers entry to his jewelry store.
Throughout the sequence, characters shout over each other on- and off-screen, a drill wears away at a Rolex watch and music pulsates under Ratner’s movements. “Uncut Gems” is built on this meeting place between anxiety and chaos, showing how constant action and excess leads to destruction.
“Uncut Gems” tells the story of Ratner, a gambling-addicted jewelry store owner whose life changes when he becomes embroiled in a business deal with Kevin Garnett and is confronted for his previous debts. Howard deals with a life on the pinnacle of collapse, facing his disintegrating marriage and an ensuing affair while attempting to balance his business’ finances with his own financially harmful vice.
Ratner is an American archetype, a businessman with an absent conscience and a never-ending appetite for excess. He manages to own two homes, a thriving business, multiple cars and expensive pieces of jewelry, yet he never has any money on hand, always spending without considering saving.
Sandler shines as Ratner, turning in a career-best performance that uses his tension between comedic farce and sociopathic anger for maximum effect. Sandler maintains an energy of pure, unvarnished mania while simultaneously grounding the audience with his sense of gravitas. As a near-perfect match of character and role, it feels almost impossible to imagine any other actor playing Ratner with such outsized bravado, unpleasantness and charm.
Similarly, Garnett delivers a mesmerizing performance as himself circa 2012. The film uses archival game footage from the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, and seven years later, Garnett still displays the physical prowess and intense menace that characterized him as a player.
When Garnett and Sandler share the screen, the film hits an almost uncanny level as the two cultural icons channel exactly what makes them so successful. For Sandler, that means endless charisma matched with thinly veiled sociopathy. For Garnett, it’s hyper-competitive intimidation combined with defiant confidence.
Rounding out the cast is a startling group of supporting actors who each do great, occasionally transcendent, work. LaKeith Stanfield continues his recent run as a masterful character actor in playing Demany, the go-between for Ratner and Garnett. Demany presents himself as an almost updated version of Ratner, hustling others on a smaller scale while simultaneously embracing the trappings of celebrity culture. Stanfield understands this character perfectly, toning back a role similar to Darius from the television show “Atlanta,” another figure on the peripheral of stardom.
Two other notable performances are the feature film debuts of Julia Fox and Kenneth Williams Richards. Fox plays Ratner’s girlfriend, Julia, a seductive, somewhat naive jewelry store clerk drawn in by Ratner’s indelible charm. Fox feels like an actress on the precipice of stardom in her scenes, capably manipulating those around her while also delivering occasional comedic relief.
Richards uses an almost exact opposite skill set as Phil, a menacing criminal figure attempting to collect Howard’s debts. Phil is a force of nature, physically intimidating everyone on screen and acting as the embodiment of Ratner’s impending doom. Richards’ untrained background lends itself to the raw nature of his performance, making it one of the most haunting in recent memory.
For writer-directors Josh and Benny Safdie, “Uncut Gems” feels like an exclamation point on this phase of their young career. Ten years in development, this film delivers the same thrilling momentum of 2017’s “Good Time” but adds a more heartfelt, personal narrative to the characters. In “Good Time,” the protagonist was more of a conniving plot machine, while “Uncut Gems” makes Ratner a fully realized character. Given that the film draws on the two brothers’ childhood in the diamond district, this personal connection seems readily apparent.
Ultimately, “Uncut Gems” is the kind of film that feels like it could only be made by directors with the Safdies’ background and knowledge of source material. The film’s pure chaos needs the kind of ringleader comfortable in this world, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the film’s gambling sequences. While sports gambling has often been portrayed in films like “Focus,” “The Gambler” or “Lay the Favorite,” the end result usually creates something either confusing or overly simplistic.
In “Uncut Gems,” the gambling feels deeply realized and consequential, as the viewer lives and dies with every bounce of a basketball just as Ratner does. “Uncut Gems” understands its world by reckoning with the fact that gambling, whether in sports, business or personal life, is not dependent on luck; it’s dependent on chaos. For Ratner, chaos is a vocation.