Uncut Gems

Uncut Gems

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

I had a very averse reaction watching this yesterday. In fact, it may very well have been my worse cinema experience of the past year. It is rare that bad film goes beyond boredom or irritation and, instead, send me into fury, but it does happen from time to time. Of course, in maybe an immature way, this was sparked specifically by the final moment of the film. One that, so far from what I’ve seen, has been chosen not to be commented on by critics and reviewers, undoubtedly due to spoiler culture. In any case, I was more than shocked by the twist at the end of the film, as, this moment truly flipped the whole film, which I had enjoyed immensely to this point, on its head. Much of what is at fault is due to my own preconceived notions going in. In truth, I know little about the Safdie brothers outside of Good Time and the little I’ve read on their filmography, which indicated to me they like to do character studies, on unique personalities, especially those from the inner city. So, watching the film, I was latched on the entire time to Howard Ratner (and Sandler’s great performance) and his addiction—one of the best portrayals of addiction I’ve seen. What the ending left me with then was some kind of parable or fable in which case I found the film so repulsive, just absolutely revolting, that I could forget the fantastic two hours I’d had just before it. Many of the critics reviews out there could leave on to believe that is the film is indeed another character study or, regrettably, a fable, but I implore you not to go into this thinking of it in that way. How misanthropic a tale is that, you would create such a careful observation of Howard’s character and his addiction and end his film with his death, one my friends erroneously quipped ‘he deserved.’ Also mentioning that, it’s a Greek tragedy, you know he’s going to die in the end. I’ve seen comparison to Sisyphus, which is fairly apt, but would be more so if the film had ended in such away that emphasized the cyclical nature of Howard’s life. At this point I could not think of anything meaningful in this ending that wasn’t some despicable thesis.

This isn’t the first time I’d had a poor first reaction to a film I generally love. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure I left massively disappointed. Having had it introduced to me as a horror film, which it arguably is, I was left empty after my late night viewing, with little takeaway. After watching Pulse with a group the next day and adoring it, I took the DVD home with me again and watched it that same night and it clicked. A film can easily benefit from your knowing what to expect from it—indeed a film likely isn’t truly that great if it doesn’t get better with each viewing. After reading the Notebook review on Uncut Gems, my only prior written knowledge of it, I was going into the film already expecting Ratner to score in that final seen, and finish of another section of his cycle. In that way, the finale left me twice as shocked, only adding to my hasty conclusion and rage. But considering this anecdote, my enjoyment of the film prior to this moment as well as my adoration of Good Time a few days earlier, and the reviews I’d read here on Letterboxd (much less so the ones I read from outside critics online), made me think ‘that can’t be right’ and I needed to see it again for closure.

So, watching the film again, I can’t deny that I think it is great. Watching it this second time I was able to catch so much foreshadowing in the dialogue in reference to Howard’s tragic end (and Arno). If we are to call this a modern tragedy, which I think is fine and apt, fair enough, but it helps that you go into a tragedy knowing it is that, just as the Greeks would know when they were sitting to see either a comedy or a tragedy performed. Maybe a minor grievance resolved their, but one I’m very grateful for after my sleepless night prior.

More importantly, going in this time I’ve embraced the concept that the film is not in fact about Howard, who is instead a great tool fitting perfectly in what is apparently the Safdie’s beloved downward spiral, or even his addiction, but the capitalism that not only created this version of him but also entrapped him this state. Many have mentioned the claustrophobic nature of the film’s vast use of close-ups, and it is true. What’s also helped is many of the wider character shots are still left to indoor scenes where the composition is able to emphasize, often through frame within a frame, the confining nature of the walls around Howard. In one of my favorite sequences, in which KG is trapped in between the doors to Howard’s shop, the camera follows the employees around the office, whip-pans while tracking each, a great emphasis on this very room’s confinement of Howard, especially while foreshadowing the events of the finale. If you aren’t convinced what is entrapping Howard is the capitalist system leading to his downfall, look closer at these instances of the sets framed around him. Almost always they are blinged-out walls, expensive art pieces or other memorabilia, or generally glossy surfaces. One of my favorite frames within a frame is that of the shot looking in from outside of Howard and Julia’s window, the grainy night film making the dark and din glow of nearby lights become very reminiscent of the shots of the black opal, inside and out.

The beautiful title sequence is already a great implication of this. The camera zooms closer and closer into the black opal until it match-cuts to a CG sequence traveling inside the opal, where you can see the whole world, all two twist and turn it’s way directly into close-up movements through Howard’s colon. Not only is the black opal connected directly with Howard here, it also implies the shit-stained tunnel to hell the film is about to embark on and its connection to the extravagant gem. In the end, necessary or not, Howard’s bullet hole to the head allows for the camera to go back into him and help bookend the film. Maybe not a needed reminder, but I’ve never minded things not being subtle. (In any case, far better than my first interpretation where the popping-cork-like visuals seemed to nod toward some sickening catharsis we were supposed to have in seeing the stress finally relieved.) The gem itself is really the films greatest symbol for the monstrous capitalist consumerism gnawing away on all of our characters. KG’s spiritual reaction to the black opal, another of my favorite bits, and later a great extreme close-up at the auction of the dazzle in his eyes connects simultaneously the greed and exploitation behind these glossy materials. Howard, although directly connected to the gem, is shown, in the moments after the auction, looking at the stone again for only the second time, and the beautiful colors are gone, the lighting only allowing for the slate-white reflection off the opal to show, as well as the leitmotif that’d been used, and straight forward indicator that it is not the gems and jewelry that sparks the light in Howard’s eye. That is where the ending works so much better, where we watch Howard, having trapped himself and his loan sharks, we often watch him through the glass of his office doorway, leading to exposures that most parallel the beautiful opal CG imagery, thanks to the reflections of light on the glass. It’s this moment, this thrill that is the real gem for Howard, simultaneously, this is the moment the gem, as a symbol, has literally trapped him. He has nowhere to go in this system that has doomed him and many others.

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