Films that show a man at the apparent low point of his life usually show some exposition to explain how he got there, and to garner some sympathy for the character. After all, why would an audience have any investment in a movie without seeing the humanity behind the mess? In Uncut Gems, the Safdie Brothers’ didn’t waste any screen time convincing us that Howard Ratner had redeemable qualities. Instead, they created a film that abruptly grabbed me, pulled me in, and didn’t let go. It shouldn’t have worked as well as it did, but between the brilliant writing by the Safdie Brothers, terrific acting from Sandler and others, and a perfect synth-heavy score, Uncut Gems easily became one of my favorite film experiences of 2019.
Unlike the standard tragedy, there was no fall from grace in Uncut Gems; Ratner had been falling into debt, over-betting, and pathologically lying for awhile before he was on screen. His marriage was already in shambles. Instead of watching a man fall, all we saw was a man unable to claw his way out of the hole he dug himself into. It was a fascinating reversal, especially because the film never gave away any hints of how the filmmakers viewed the morality of the world they created. Was karma going to catch up to him? If he repented (as he kind of tried to), would he be able to make it back? I really didn’t have much time to even consider what the film was trying to say because the manic movement was flashing too quickly, albeit in a sensible way, not in a Bourne Identity action sequence way.
Daniel Lopatin’s score was the glue that held the action together, keeping the feelings of anxiety and manic insanity high without needing any words. After a cold open in an Ethiopian mine, Lopatin set a very specific mood and never let go of the audience’s grip from there. Drenched with analog synth and choir samples, the songs enhance the feelings of anxiety arising from the manic events onscreen by going against implicit expectations that our brains have been trained to listen for. I’ll use his first and one of the most impactful tracks, “The Ballad of Howie Bling,” to explain specifically how he managed to create such anxiety-inducing feelings.
The central technique that created the heightened feelings was the lack of repetition. Instead of relying on a standard song structure, the track progressed forward through everchanging ambient musical phrases aside from a feint underlying two-note synth pattern that faded in and out. This removed the brain’s ability to predict what will come next in the song. Musical swells or crescendos elicit strong emotions (think the end of the Beatles “A Day in the Life”), and Lopatin’s seemingly random insertion of them keeps the anxious feelings high. “The Ballad of Howie Bling” also utilized human voice, but only via distorted words or choir notes, further confusing the viewer’s brain as it attempts to make sense of it. Combine all of these effects, and you have an emotionally unstable audience. Thanks to the manic pace and acting of Sandler, these feelings did not get resolved until the surprise end.
Aside from when the Weeknd performed, the first non-Lopatin track that dominated the soundscape was “The Stranger” by Billy Joel. I found it a fascinating choice because, ironically, the song was blasting while Howard walked down a street being greeted by people left and right. Howard was clearly just a friendly person to those who didn’t get too close, but as the first line of “The Stranger” stated, “we all have a face that we hide away forever.” And Howard died as that face was coming to light.
I cannot think of another film where so much relief came from the death of the central character. The mania was over and I could finally breathe and relax in my seat again. As I was watching the scene unfold, I reflected on how truly weird of a main character he was. Not a hero obviously, nor an anti-hero, or really an antagonist. He was not special or really notable; Lakeith and the other salesman showed they could work with other jewelry salesmen. Julia proved multiple times that she could be with another man. Dinah had an incredible support system, and her kids barely even recognized his existence. Would his death really affect anyone? What a terrifying way to conclude a film.
Adam Sandler is deservedly getting heaps of praise for his lead performance. He managed to give a much grimier edge to his old Billy Madison-era persona. But a number of other actors deserve credit as well. Lakeith Stanfield as Howard’s scheming assistant was brilliant, a scene-stealer as he is in every film where he isn’t the main character. Kevin Garnett and Mike Francesa were both surprisingly engaging in their first acting roles.
As someone with a diagnosed anxiety disorder or two, the frequent praise of Uncut Gems that it’s like a 90-minute panic attack was more of a warning sign than an advertisement. Yet skipping out on seeing a good Adam Sandler performance would be like staying inside while Halley’s Comet passes by, and I’m glad I caught it. Even more, the soundtrack continued to stick with me after the movie, and I still find myself listening to it while reading and writing. It’s a darn shame that the Oscars voters probably won’t have the same reverence for ambient synth music.