Saturday 11 January 2020

Pressure drop: "Uncut Gems"

Some career progressions are utterly unforeseeable. Consider, if you will, the Safdie brothers, New York-based indie tyros who deal in shakedowns and stress tests rather than movies per se. Already much admired in France, the pair broke through in the UK with 2014's Heaven Knows What, a naturalistic study of junkie life that was at once admirably uncompromising and in places close to unwatchable. They picked up a star in the adventurous Robert Pattinson for 2017's Good Time, a grungily hopped-up Of Mice and Men update demonstrating a jittery energy that drained away come the final act with the introduction of recent cinema's most irritating supporting character. Now they have a Netflix deal, from which emerges this week's Adam Sandler vehicle Uncut Gems. What gives? It's true that the Safdies are developing something akin to a popular touch - both Good Time and Uncut Gems could be sold as thrillers of a kind, and they've never quite made anything as terminally insufferable as their regular collaborator Ronald Bronstein's Frownland, a migraine that assumed cinematic form - but Safdie films remain altogether agitated and agitating; they need glowing write-ups far less than they do a prescription for Xanax. You wouldn't necessarily have these directors pegged as the great white hope of the US indie scene, as many now frame them, but it's a development that speaks to the perversity of the moment: these guys have become the patron saints of a generation of cinephiles who can't sleep because they're too busy checking Twitter to see whether 45 has lobbed a nuke at somebody.

Uncut Gems is so restless it nearly makes Good Time seem soothing. It begins with a sweep over an Ethiopian mining accident, then emerges via a colonoscopy into the life of one Howard Ratner (Sandler), a jewellery trader with both a polyp and a rocket up his ass. An habitual sports gambler, heavily in debt and juggling a wife (Idina Menzel) and mistress (Julia Fox), Ratner has pinned all his hopes on the sale of rare black opals found in the wake of that mining accident. The trouble - as signalled by the fact that prologue is seemingly styled after that of The Exorcist - is that the rocks would seem to come with a curse of some kind. The Safdies establish an ominous mood with the early scenes in Ratner's salesroom: it should be his stronghold, this carefully secured, widely surveilled bolthole, except the directors deliberately cram it from the off with as many bodies as possible - passing rappers and basketballers, assorted kooks and goons - and get them to lean all over the display cases Howard has specifically instructed them not to lean over. To watch a Safdie film, again, is to expose yourself to varying levels of discordant noise: the raspy voices of non-professional actors shouting over the top of one another in long, heavily improvised scenes, background street sounds that New Yorkers grow up with but which become deafening when pumped through Dolby surround, Daniel Lopatin's droney electro score filling in whatever gaps are left. It's completely immersive, but what the unqualified raves for Uncut Gems aren't telling you is that you'd do well to keep mufflers close at hand for some of it.

Unlike mumblecore's more genial graduates, plotting smooth passage towards mainstream assignments, the Safdies seem to be conducting an experiment to see just how abrasive and cacophonous a movie can be before it turns audiences off altogether. (They may be doing in all seriousness what the comedian Stewart Lee only jokes about: putting together schtick that whittles their audience down to the one person who gets their work absolutely.) Flaunting its own rough edges, Uncut Gems was always unlikely to set the box-office alight, which is why the Safdies have sought sanctuary with Netflix, and possibly explains the casting of Sandler, the most Marmitey of performers: presumably the thinking was that if you sat through not just one but two Grown-Ups movies, Uncut Gems should be a breeze. There is, granted, a residual fascination in watching Sandler drill down into a physically and morally flabby character: Howard Ratner is a genuinely funny and pathetic creation, with a tendency to pitch even his small talk ten decibels too loud, a tic that meshes perfectly with what the Safdies are attempting to achieve. This is a great anchoring performance - on screen, shit-eating grin in place for almost the entirety of these two hours - and my suspicion is that Uncut Gems would be straight-up aggravation without a star of his calibre in place. (Another telltale sign of perversity: for once, Sandler is the most welcome presence on screen.) It is, I should underline, pretty aggravating as is. 

It strikes me that the Safdies, like young boys stretching rubber bands to see how far they can go, are hellbent on turning out pulpy B-movies at auteur length that threatens to become punishing: I begrudgingly tagged along with Good Time, certain as I was that absolutely no good could come from the actions of everybody involved in its bankrobbing plot, and I felt some resistance to the new movie even before the directors insisted on Sandler doing an entire chaotic scene in a jersey that hadn't had its sales tag removed. (As with the wafer-thin mint Monty Python fed Mr. Creosote, this was a stress too far.) As with Good Time, there's not much of a payoff after all this squirming and suffering, either. The brothers are too busy sustaining their buzz, sharpening the cut-and-thrust of individual scenes, to think much of where anything is headed - which makes me wonder what the purpose of their cinema is, beyond the generation of a certain abstract movement and empty sensation. There remains something interesting in their determination to go against the grain of so much contemporary American cinema, to rattle rather than reassure: at a generous push, you could say the Safdies are using the stresses induced by capitalism - the shit the system puts us through - to in some way critique it. Yet we live in a world which now offers a thousand free ways to give yourself headaches and heart palpitations; I can't understand for a minute why anyone would pay to have them induced on a night off.

Uncut Gems is now playing in selected cinemas, before streaming on Netflix from January 31.

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