Uncut Gems (2019)
Director: Josh and Benny Safdie
Screenwriter: Josh Safdie, Ronald Bronstein, Benny Safdie
Starring: Adam Sandler, Lakeith Stanfield, Julia Fox, Kevin Garnett, Idina Menzel, Eric Bogosian
“Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” – Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
Sisyphus, the first king of Corinth in Greek myth, was a sly, deceitful, crafty character. He angered Zeus by harming travellers in violation of Greek hospitality customs, and Zeus, in response, commissioned Thanatos to chain Sisyphus up and take him to the underworld. Thanatos was apparently a dummy, and when Sisyphus asked for a demonstration of the chains, Thanatos chained himself up, allowing Sisyphus to escape unscathed. Another story tells that Sisyphus asked his wife to leave him in the town square just before his death. When he arrived across the river Styx without the proper burial traditions, he begged Persephone to allow him to return to the Earth to scold his wife and receive a proper burial. His wish was granted, though he failed to return to the underworld until his death of natural causes many years later. For cheating both Zeus and Hades, Sisyphus was condemned to push a boulder up a hill. Upon reaching the apex, the boulder rolled right back down, forcing Sisyphus to return to the bottom to continue the absurd task for all eternity.
Uncut Gems isn’t a 1:1 translation of the myth of Sisyphus, but there’s no denying the parallels between the Corinthian king and Sandler’s Howard Ratner. Howie cheats his enemies, his friends, and his family. He sells a chain a friend gave him to hold to get $24,000 so he could place a bet. He pawns Kevin Garnett’s championship ring, which the basketball player lent as collateral, for another $21,000. He keeps a love nest for his girlfriend while still married to his wife, he owes his brother-in-law, Arno, $100,000. He’s sly, deceitful, crafty, and decked out in jewels that would make any king envious. Most important is his absurd persistence for that next big hit, never accepting failure or consequence, and doing anything it takes to overcome an obstacle.
The film opens with Ethiopian miners harvesting black opal. The conditions are obviously rough, with an injured worker surrounded by his comrades, showing the viewer the real blood and work that made this story possible. But within the black opal lies the complexity and age of the universe (“You can see the whole universe in opals,” Howie remarks), and the camera travels into the radiant gem before transitioning into the colon of our main character. The edit shows a cosmic connection between the characters and stones on a microscopic level, and surely sets the tone for this tale of tragedy.
This opal was ordered by Howie, and he is delighted to show this valuable rock to Celtics power forward Kevin Garnett, who has come to his shop on the recommendation of a friend. The opal is set to go to auction (where Howie expects to receive $1,000,000), but Garnett is captivated by the gems. He begs to borrow it, believing it to be a sign of good fortune for his playoff game against the Sixers, and Howie reluctantly accepts. Meanwhile, Arno sends tough guys to confront Howie, and Howie aims to avoid paying his debts while obsessively fighting to receive his own collections.
The story is driven by anxiety-inducing scenes that are filled to the brim with chaos. Howie’s jewellery shop is a place of incessant chatter, buzzing, dinging and screaming, all masterfully edited together to create a tense atmosphere. Howie is alive in this anarchy because of his one-track mind. He’s singularly focused on scoring as big as possible, and throughout the movie he ignores co-workers, family, and gangsters as he texts, digs through a fish, or watches his daughter’s play. A viewer’s mind pleads with Howie to do literally the opposite of what he’s doing, but where’s the fun in that? His aggressive nature is the whole reason this film exists, and will surely lead to his downfall.
Across New York, windows and metal catch flashes of light that mimic the appearance of the multicolored opal. A scene in a club is drenched in blacklight, with red lights expressing Howie’s anger at his friend for not bringing him the gem from KG. The most impressive visuals are the trips into the gems or body, which add a sort of spiritual element to the film, elevating it beyond the typical thriller or gangster film. That cosmic element is also found in the score, a blend of synths, sax and flutes that represent the gem or Howie’s mood. It’s a weird score that perfectly fits with the larger themes of universal interconnectivity.
You don’t have to be a degenerate gambler, NBA fan or Jewish person to appreciate the film, but it certainly will boost your enjoyment. The construction of a narrative around real basketball games is impressive, and hearing a family discuss Linsanity and the garbage New York Knicks front office following Passover is so specifically relatable to the right person. What’s really important are the moments that speak to the human condition, like the myth of Sisyphus. The value in Howie is that continuous will to fight no matter how bad things appear. His joy in victory, followed by the depths of anger in defeat, are feelings anyone can understand. There’s joy in the struggle towards one’s goals, and even more in success, no matter how fleeting. One gets to imagine Howard Ratner happy.