The films of the Safdie Brothers tend to share a few recognizable qualities. Most apparent is the kinetic, stressful energy with which each of their films unfolds, a ride that weaves unexpectedly while continuously approaching a breakneck speed. Those weaves are almost always a result of character decisions, though, and I respect that the Brothers keep memorable figures at the fore through even their most plot-twisty jaunts. They seem drawn to slightly-delusional protagonists, too, if not fully-delusional, and so the common logline usually follows a familiar trajectory: Main Character makes increasingly dumb decisions and pays for it. And then there’s the street-level realism, from the single-parent struggles of Daddy Longlegs to the exploration of addiction in Heaven Knows What to the petty life of crime in Good Time.
So why does Uncut Gems feel so different? Increased production value, sure, and an increased profile to match. Before Gems the Safdies weren’t household names unless you caught Good Time, which most probably saw for Robert Pattinson more so than the directors. And of course Gems not only has the excitement of Sandler returning to a dramatic role, but also his most remarkable performance ever (fight me!) as Howard Ratner. These things alone set this particular Safdie outing apart.
Still, Gems fits the mold: insane, stressful energy; memorable, delusional characters; gritty docu-style realism. Main Character makes increasingly dumb decisions and pays for it. But this time around the Safdies tapped something deeper by effectively splitting your brain in half.
On the one hand Uncut Gems is their most “realistic” movie yet. Basketballer Kevin Garnett portrays basketballer Kevin Garnett, The Weeknd portrays The Weeknd, and their celebrity status propels significant plot motion throughout the film. Howard obtains Garnett’s championship Celtics ring, which we in Boston (fight me!) recognize as a real-life treasure with much the same built-in reverence. The games that Howard bets on are actual Celtics games. Taken as a whole, these choices make it easy as an audience member to feel enmeshed in the action of the film. Like Howard, we recognize the celebrity of Garnett and The Weeknd, recognize the sanctity of the championship ring, and recognize that the stakes are sky-high without having to be told why.
…and yet pervading this realism is a mystical gem that seems to bring you fantastical fortune before destroying you.
It’s a discordant juxtaposition that shouldn’t work. The gem should pull us right out of that realism and right out of the film, shattering that ease with which we were swept along in Howard’s tomfoolery. A psychedelic trip through the childhood memories of a basketball player should feel completely out of place in a New York jewelry shop with a broken front door. But instead the instances of supernaturalism happen so artfully and are so inextricable from the themes of fate afoot in Gems that they almost slip by without a second thought, as if magical stones pulled from the depths of the earth were no more unrealistic than the rest of it.
David Gordon Green leaps to mind as a skilled purveyor of this exact trope in film, though it exists in literature (i.e. Cormac McCarthy) and visual art (i.e. Picasso) as well. Green’s films Joe and Manglehorn both utilize non-actors to play everyday people, treecutters and alcoholic fathers and locksmiths, and yet their stories are elevated by the inclusion of a subtle otherworldliness. Manglehorn, especially, seems like a film that could simply have existed as a borderline documentary, steeped in realism from the characters to the settings to the dialogue. It probably would have still been a decent film, albeit one you’ve seen again and again and again. But a lonely locksmith using an invisible key to pop a door, even if it’s just a momentary flourish, makes for a vastly deeper experience for all the possibilities it holds.
Swerving into the surreal only works in Joe and Manglehorn because we feel at home in the real, and the black opal in Gems serves much the same purpose in brazenly invading an otherwise matter-of-fact film. The Safdies carefully constructed a highway to get Howard from Point A to Point B, only to suddenly reveal the existence of teleportation. The supernatural isn’t completely without precedence in the Safdie oeuvre, as their 2012 short film The Black Balloon follows a sentient balloon as it befriends New Yorkers and eventually frees its brethren from the NYC Balloon Co. But simultaneously going in the opposite direction — essentially including elements that could legally be found in a documentary, particularly Garnett’s casting as himself — makes their latest a beast of its own.
The filmography of the Safdies leading up to Uncut Gems has a lot in common with itself, but it maybe lacked a certain characteristic to reach that higher artistic echelon. Good Time, especially, played as a hyperfueled version of a movie that already exists elsewhere. But with Gems, the Safdies finally dug deeper. They certainly brought their signature real-time stylings to set, pulling tricks like breaking a panel of glass out from under Garnett without the actor knowing when they’d pull the trigger. They did well to pepper in fads of the time, too, from Furbies to Powerade. And like David Gordon Green, they hired non-actors for a variety of roles to add another layer of realism. But even if their plots have always been unpredictable, it’s endlessly exciting to see the Safdies’ filmmaking follow suit in finally straying from the comfort of home.