Uncut Gems (2019): A Classic Cinematic Landmark in the Making

Giving immediate reactions to this film is hard. ‘Uncut Gems‘ is, ironically, not much of a good time, what it is, is a deeply felt, cathartic experience of a film, in the way that I always look for in my favourite films. It reminds me of the films of Dario Argento, Gaspar Noe, and Stanley Kubrick just in how much this is a visceral, by the seat of your pants experience. 

I genuinely can’t remember the last time I felt this tense in a film. It’s not tense in the way I am watching a thriller like ‘Tenebrae‘, or even something more modern like a ‘Casino Royale‘, there’s little to no joy in the cinematic thrill of a well put together chase or being totally involved in an action scene, although you are totally involved. What you experience is more akin to watching a great football match where it’s totally open, and the team you support are clearly the less talented team, and they’re constantly a goal behind no matter how many goals they score somehow, they can’t quite get ahead of the other team the whole time, right up until the knuckle-whitening final moments. I’ve seen some matches like that and they’re some of my favourites I’ve ever seen. You are trapped in the film the same way the main character is trapped in it. 

So many characters are heard first or universally as disembodied voices over the phone competing for audio bandwidth with Sandler’s yammering. So many scenes seem to have been filmed in multiple long shots, each take taking a different path for the camera, and then randomly stitched together in the editing. You’re never sure from which angle you’re going to be looking at a character next or where you’re going to be thrust from there. The music is reminiscent of Vangelis or Wendy Carlos but unlike their gliding, serene if foreboding tones, here it’s almost like a synth version of the ‘The Dark Knight’ score, constantly escalating, constantly unpredictable, constantly shooting off in wild directions, like the film’s main character. 

The film is primarily an experiential piece but it also engages intellectually too as a pretty explicit inditement of Capitalism. There’s a speech sort of an hour 50 ish into the movie from Sandler, (in a career-best performance, yes, even better than ‘Punch-Drunk Love‘), that pretty solidly cements that theme, without ever slipping into just exposition, which is a very hard line to walk. None of the characters are good or bad, they’re all very deeply flawed but all fascinating. This is the final word in not needing your film to have a single ‘likeable’ or ‘moral’ or ‘good’ character in it and still be great, especially in its lead character. I do want to talk about Sandler for a bit, because this film GETS Sandler. In the way every great dramatic performance from the man does. ‘The Meyerowitz Stories‘ gets him, ‘Punch-Drunk Love‘ gets him, and this film gets him maybe more than any of those films do. In those films, they understand what a good character that happens to be an Adam Sandler performance looks like, this film understands what an Adam Sandler performance IS. It understands what that means for the person being portrayed, and the mania inherent in that person, and that really leads me onto my final point. 

The thing that ‘Good Time‘ did really well, ‘Uncut Gems‘ is the perfect iteration of for me. ‘Good Time‘ did many of the things right that ‘Uncut Gems‘ does, and what both of these films lead up to is the idea that you have a manic character, and the film itself is manic. This is where the strange combination of Cassavetes style realism meeting hyper stylisation in every other aspect comes from for me. The handheld, social realist camera work, with the frenetic editing, grounded if manic performances, and quite literally insane score all come together for the form to perfectly match the content. The film is a unified vision of mania, in both it’s form, medium, and subtext. 

This is a pretty towering achievement of cinema, and it’s going to be a long time until anyone produces a film to match it I think.

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