Uncut Gems is one of those movies that probably will not win many awards, earn a lot of money or even be recognised as a definite classic decades after its release.

Instead, it is the kind of movie film lovers will stumble upon once in a while and come out of the experience pleasantly surprised. They would admire the film’s unique plot, edgy cinematography, excellent tension-building and a performance from Adam Sandler that single-handily re-establishes him as a serious actor. It is a wonder of a film and, along with The Irishman, Marriage Story, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Parasite and Booksmart, one of the reasons why 2019 was a great year for cinema.

The film starts with a scene in Wollo, Ethiopia, depicting the discovery of a valuable black opal. Howard (Sandler), a jeweler, after finding out about the existence of the opal in Ethiopia, somehow manages to get his hands on it. Paying only 100,000 dollars upfront, he plans to sell it for 10 times that amount.

There is only one problem. Howard is a disturbed, jittery gambling addict. His marriage is falling apart, and he owes a great deal of money to loan sharks associated with his brother-in-law. He owes money to hardened criminals, but every single valuable item he receives he pawns off for gambling money, hoping to make a big score. Even as his life begins to unravel, Howard takes an even more brutal and uncertain path in search of a break both the audience and, deep down, even he knows will never quench his trust.

The film is full of tension, but it is not plot-driven. It is hard to make a good thriller that is character-driven, mostly because in order to generate tension something must keep happening to the protagonist. The filmmakers of Uncut Gems confidently chuck this formula out of the window.

Here, it is Howard himself that keeps doing bad things to himself. His chances at a normal life are close and clear, it is exhausting to see him waste so many chances. But the character is so honest to his basest, most human nature, it is hard not to admire him for it. Rarely has such a complicated character been created out of thin air, and yet I feel like I had known him in real life.

As brilliant and distinctive the direction and the plot was, the greatest challenge must have lied in finding an actor that can play Howard as much as it was in creating him. Sandler’s performance in this movie could have been expected of Daniel Day-Lewis or Joaquin Phoenix. It is so unique, it is hard to find parallels for it in cinematic history. I cannot for the life of me figure out where he could have found the inspiration to play the kind of character that had never made it to film before.

The character is Sandler’s and the filmmaker’s distinctive creation. Coming from a man known for being goofy and who has throughout his career upheld the tradition of dumb-is-funny in almost every single one of his movies, this is unprecedented. This is not just a performance merely light-years away from his Happy Gilmore days. This is miles away from his acclaimed performance in Punch-Drunk Love. And I do not take lightly saying this about a character featured in a movie that is directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.

Of course, a great deal of credit should go to Joshua and Benjamin Safdie, who directed the movie, and Ronald Bronstein, the screenwriter. Uncut Gems identifies a part of the human condition so rarely explored in cinema and lays it bare for us not to judge but to gently identify with.

What they have done is create a character so flawed and yet so excellent in his capacity to take unprecedented risks, we wonder if what happens to Howard in the final scene, which is fantastically executed, is really as tragic as it seems. Perhaps it is a blessing. Perhaps it is that brief moment of indulgence, that heavy dose of dopamine, that is our only opportunity for great pleasure.

PUBLISHED ON Jan 04,2020 [ VOL 20 , NO 1027]

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