uncut_gems

The Safdie Brothers make films driven by the ego—I mean that in the psychoanalytic sense mostly, though one detects a bit of the word’s more colloquial definition in their new film Uncut Gems. More on that later, perhaps; for now, Freud. The protagonists of Heaven Knows What, Good Time, and now Uncut Gems are perpetually in a position of mediating between the strength of their desires and an awareness of the social standards which prevent them from fulfilling those desires outright. That fulfillment, then, only comes with a level of necessary savvy, the street-smarts needed to navigate one’s social world with an eye towards attaining those desires. The conscience, or the superego, is almost entirely externalized, a code of behavior which is understood but not incorporated into one’s own psyche; a break from that code is possible so long as one can get away with it.  

In other words, to use a term that might be more at home in one of their films, the Safdie Brothers are concerned with hustle. But the way that hustle functions in Uncut Gems strikes me as fundamentally different from the way it functions in Heaven Knows What and Good Time. In all three films, hustling is both a suspense-generating device and an anthropological claim about a particular subculture—we get a sense that hustling is an essential aspect of these characters’ worlds. However, in their previous two films, that claim provides the basis for a larger structural critique, one which implicates systems that exist outside the world of the film. Harley’s hustle in Heaven Knows What indicates the difficulty of living as a marginalized subject in a city which provides few resources for addicts or the homeless; Connie’s hustle in Good Time provides a hierarchy of marginalization, in which a blue collar white man comes in contact with a variety of other figures within or below his class strata and exploits them at every turn.

There was potential for a similar level of critique in Uncut Gems. The subcultures which protagonist Howard Ratner inhabit—New York’s diamond district locally, the Jewish petit bourgeoisie more broadly—are ripe for analysis with regards to their place within the larger hegemonic structure of global capitalism. However, no such analysis emerges from the film, despite a prologue set in Ethiopia in which the harsh conditions of diamond-mining are made evident. Howard’s greed, the film’s driving force, is never questioned, examined, or contextualized. Instead, it is merely taken as a fact which motivates the film’s various narrative  strands. One’s takeaway from the film, which is filled with characters just as greedy and materialistic as Howard, is that America, if not all of humanity, is defined by greed. Such a thesis feels facile and incomplete, especially considering the film’s nearly exclusive focus on minority groups (NBA superstar Kevin Garnett’s fascination with the titular uncut gem is perhaps the film’s central symbol of material obsession). 

The movie is not without its pleasures. Adam Sandler is terrific in the lead role, though even then one gets the sense that the Safdies’ need to constantly agitate the audience neutralizes some of the nuance and detail which the Sandman typically brings to his character work—the comic potential in Howard catching his mistress in a compromising situation with The Weeknd is largely squandered in favor of an intense screaming match, for example. Julia Fox, as the mistress, is even better, lending the role an unexpected tenderness and pathos. The Safdies’ ability to create a sense of natural interaction with large groups of actors also remains impressive. 

Still, I am worried that the brothers’ aesthetic, the power of which was undeniable when I first encountered their work in Heaven Knows What, has been stripped of the empathetic impulse which once bolstered it. The hustle, and the accompanying suspense it generates, has begun to feel purely like a device to mindlessly excite their audience. To the extent that I was kept tense for the entire duration of the film, the Safdies’ emphasis on suspense works, but afterward I found myself left with little more than the faded memory of an adrenaline rush.