The Fascinating Chaos of Uncut Gems

Paper by Ren Kitaichi.

Joshua (born April 3rd, 1984) and Benjamin (born February 24th, 1986) Safdie are American independent filmmakers based in New York City who, on top of being brothers, often collaborate creatively with one another. In addition to writing and directing, the pair regularly serve in positions including shooting, editing, acting, and producing. Partially learning from their film-enthusiast father, from a young age the pair began experimenting with making films. By 24, Josh released his first feature film, The Pleasure of Being Robbed (Josh Safdie, 2008) with Benny helping him edit. Over the next 11 years, the brothers directed and released an additional 5 feature films together: Daddy Longlegs (2009), Lenny Cooke (2013), Heaven Knows What (2014), Good Time (2017), and Uncut Gems (2019). Demonstrated in their films Daddy Long Legs, Heaven Knows What, Good Time, and the film I will be analyzing, Uncut Gems, the Safdie brothers draw the attention of the audience with their carefully crafted protagonist and extreme attention to maintaining a strong sense of realism.

Uncut Gems is a fictional American crime thriller, filmed entirely in New York City, with much of it shot on location. The directors blend together their fictional movie with the reality of the location they shoot, and on top of this, a number of actors in this film play themselves, such as The Weekend, Trinidad James, Ca$hout, and of course Kevin Garnett. Many of the secondary characters were also scouted on the streets of New York by the Safdies, such as Marshall and Ronald Greenberg, Mitchel and Steward Wenig, Wayne Diamond, and most notably the main antagonist of the film, Keith Williams Richards, who was waiting for the L train at 14th street when he was approached by the Safdies and asked to come to the audition (Harris). Another detail I noticed while writing this paper is that the directors even included a real DJ from New York, Kerwin Frost, as the DJ during the scene of the Weekend performing. This is worth note not because of Frost’s inclusion, but because the directors do not even show Frost in the film, he is there purely for his two lines over the loudspeakers inside of the nightclub. The use of non-actors by the directors gives the film an unquestionable authenticity, all while the directive decision to create a story that revolves around a real NBA game cements it in reality. The Safdie’s search to find a perfect player that fit the description was long, taking around 10 years. The key character in which they searched originally was going to be cast to Amar’e Stoudemire, then Kobe Byrant, then finally Kevin Garnett. The Safdie brothers brought in long-time cinematographer Nab Khondji as director of photography for this film. Of Khondji’s 40-year career, he was pushed “unlike any other project” (Gullickson) he’s worked on. Uncut Gems was filmed on 35mm film with a few sequences filmed on digital. Besides the movie itself, the Safdies and Khondji make the film feel more real and immediate with their camera and lens choices. The use of anamorphic lenses, extreme long lenses, and fluid camera movements all contribute to creating a sense of great angst. Uncut Gems received critical acclaim, chosen by the National Board of Review as one of the top ten films of 2019, and is also the highest-grossing film produced by A24 at $50 million.

Uncut Gems’ extreme attention to detail of cementing the film in reality, combined with the use of non-actors that most of the audience is familiar with, unique filming techniques and methods, and extraordinary performance by Adam Sandler as Howard Rattner all add together to create the most anxiety-inducing, frantic, and stress-fueled film of recent years. The scene I will be analyzing that demonstrates this point perfectly is about halfway through the film (1:03:10-1:11:00) when Kevin Garnett visits Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) for the second time to buy the stone from him and get his Celtics championship ring back. By the end of the scene, the black opal does return to Howard, however during the scene, everything that can possibly go wrong does. This scene illustrates the decline of Howard due to the many distractions he faces, the perpetual hole that he continues to dig himself into while chasing the opal’s profit, and the fact that Howard will stop at nothing to get his big payout.

The scene begins with Howard on the phone with Anne, the spokesperson for the auction that Howard is trying to enter the black opal in. She is very upset at the fact that she has prepared every other piece of the 75 items to be auctioned off except his, and Howard continues to make excuses to her, and promising to get it there by today when Anne tells Howard that they will have the auction without his opal. While he makes his promise, he receives another call from Janet, KG’s maganger’s assistant, and she begins to tell him that his emails were disturbing. Howard asks to speak to KG’s manager, and Janet puts him on hold. Before she can, Julia calls, to which Howard reluctantly answers. He asks sarcastically if she intends to come into work, to which she replies that she is and that she’s sorry for the night before. They continue to argue for a bit but are cut short by another phone call for Howard, now from KG’s manager. Howard hangs up on Julia, and begins to immediately voice his anger about KG holding his opal. He starts to threaten her about calling the police, and once again is cut short by Howard’s assistant telling him that KG and Demany are at his shop. Howard hangs up the phone on KG’s manager and leaves his office to greet them. Howard tells his assistants to buzz KG, his bodyguard, and Demany inside, and the door malfunctions. The three are stuck in the entrance of Howard’s shop for a little bit while Howard scrambles to gather tools to fix the door. While Howard bangs on the door to restore connection to the magnets, Flawless (expert jeweler Greg Yuna) appears at the shop expecting Howard to keep his promise of setting up a new chain for him. Howard immediately tells his associates to send Flawless on his way. Howard calls Roman from his office, and he is surprised by the predicament. Roman takes his time grabbing the metal shavings, and KG is now voicing his anger. He tells Howard that he brought $175,000 to buy the opal, and Howard denies his offer and tells him that the stone was well worth over a million dollars. KG also throws in courtside seats to his game with no bite. Howard apologizes and states that he wishes he could because of how big of a fan he is. He then tells KG to enter the auction for the stone. The entire time, Roman is attempting to open the door, and Howard finally gets the shavings from Roman and finally opens the door to let KG, his bodyguard, and Demany inside. After wasting precious time, the KG just wants his ring he loaned to Howard as collateral for the opal back, which Howard forgot to retrieve. After telling them that he left the ring in Long Island, all three let out a sigh of anger. KG reluctantly gives Howard back the Opal and leaves, with Howard begging for forgiveness. As soon as they leave, Howard begins pressing Demany and blaming him for what has happened. Demany and Howard argue, and Demany tells him that he quits working for Howard and enters his safe to get his watches back. Howard attempts to grab him, but Demany finds that he is missing 3 watches, and Howard informs him that he loaned them out. Demany is very upset by this news. While Demany is talking to Howard, Howard gets a call on his office phone from his doctor and answers it. As Demany searches, he realizes that he is also missing papers for the watches, and Howard tells him to shut up while he talks to his doctor. The doc tells Howard about his colonoscopy results, and how Howard is clean. Howard is relieved, but while this goes on, Demany is trying to talk to Howard and is becoming furious that he is being ignored. Demany pours red liquid into Howard’s fish tank in an attempt to kill the fish, and this finally gets Howard’s attention. He throws the phone down and tries to save the fish while Demany gets his belongings and leaves, and the scene ends with Roman seeing the entire situation and smiling.

In this scene, the most notable element that creates and draws out emotion is the bevy of different mise-en-scene components. The scene begins with Roman grinding away at a watch very loudly. Not only is the noise loud and noticeable, but also is very irritating, immediately putting the audience on their toes. This leads us into the multiple phone calls that Howard receives from Anne, Janet, Julia, and KG’s manager. The audience is aware of the importance of the Opal, and the phone call with Anne illustrates the fact that Howard is holding up the entire auction. Julia’s phone call builds the tension between her and Howard to the audience and sets up Julia’s entrance after this scene. Janet and KG’s manager are both aware of who Howard is, and audibly show the audience that Howard has been making phone calls off screen to press KG’s team for KG to return the opal. All this is ended prematurely with the appearance of KG and Demany, who instantly change Howard’s stressed mood to relief, which also creates this emotion to the audience. However, this feeling of relief is cut very short by the door’s malfunction, and the tension and angst begins building at a very fast pace as KG and Demany repeatedly voice how they are in a rush for KG’s game. Once this importance of time is established, the directors purposely use shots that have longer duration combined with blocking and camera movements that use lots of space to create a sense of “slowness” to the rest of Howard’s associates. This is demonstrated the first time Howard’s associate gets a hammer from Roman, and when Roman comes out of the office with the metal shavings. The camera follows the actors from the main shop to the back office, then back out. Howard’s emotion of being rushed by KG and Demany is countered by the sense of tardiness from the rest of Howard’s associates and these conflicting feelings leave the audience overwhelmed. This is then combined with the plethora of different voices and sounds of the store and lack of any background music to further enhance the angst. While the malfunctioning door situation grows, suddenly Flawless shows up to the shop. The audience was shown the exchange between Flawless and Howard earlier in the film, but most likely have forgotten about him at this point due to the many different encounters that Howard had, emulating the feeling of surprise that Howard feels to the audience while also cementing the notion that Howard will burn bridges in the chase for the opal’s profits. Howard calls Roman out to help, and the camera again follows Roman from the shop to the back office, continuously building on the tension and the feeling of haste, and the lack of it that Roman has. Howard even states this, calling Roman a “slow bastard” as he hands him the requested tools. As KG tells Howard through the glass that he has no time for this, he also shows Howard the bag of money that he brought to purchase the opal with. After telling Howard how much is in the bag, the audience gets a good look at Howard’s face from a OTS shot over KG. Howard tells KG the price he wants for the opal and tells KG to enter the auction, continuing to build Howard’s character as someone who has tunnel vision on making well over a million dollars for this opal. After Howard finally gets the door open and KG states that he just wants his ring and to get out of here, Howard realizes he forgot to retrieve the ring. As the directors did with the surprise visit from Flawless, they once again emulate this feeling of surprise that Howard feels to the audience, leading the the three being extremely disappointed and leaving. The camera pans around Demany as he looks angrily at the ground, illustrating his anger at Howard, as Howard apologizes showing that he really is a big fan of KG, however his priority of profit takes over. Howard immediately begins to blame and press Demany further cementing this point and showing Howard burning more bridges. Demany’s missing watches that Howard loaned out continues to show his deceptive character, then as Demany continues to talk to Howard who is on the phone, Howard completely ignores him showing the selfishness of his character. As Demany grabs the red liquid to pour into Howard’s fish tank, his expression is shown in a MS, and he seems reluctant. However he quickly realizes the character of Howard, and pours it in. Demany leaves, and as Howard frantically attempts to save the fish, the camera shows Roman smiling, showing that even his own are beginning to think that he deserves this.

There are many things happening in this scene, and while the individual shots (or several shots together) each visually shows and conveys emotion to the audience about the person that Howard is, the scene as a whole shows that Howard not only is not true to his word, but habitually bites off more than he can chew, leading to him not being able to see through to anything he promises. While conveying the personality and traits of Howard, this scene also throws more tasks to Howard with each shot and the culmination of these shots create an extremely anxiety inducing scene.
Compared to other scenes, this specific scene is the most information packed 8 minutes of the entire movie. Many things happen before and after this scene that all relate to or are happening because of the events that took place in Howard’s office. Besides just building the selfish, greedy, and wager-hungry personality of Howard, this scene also shows the audience about the reactive effects of these traits Howard Possesses. An example of this would be the fact that Demany leaves Howard’s business, and he even leaves reluctantly as shown in the CU shot that pans around him, showing his growing disdain for Howard. This scene is primarily used for the development of Howard’s character while also closing loose ends with characters and situations introduced earlier in the film. Because the directors attention to detail to make sure that the previously introduced characters are properly dismissed, they are able to continue to introduce “distractions” to Howard without getting overly convoluted. The film does not follow a 3-act structure, and is chronological order without any flashbacks or analepsis. The decision to withhold from using any analepsis’ and adhere to a chronological timeline creates a great sense of realism to the audience, adding to the sense of how “real” the dangers that Howard may face. The chosen scene is right about in the middle of the film, and is a crucial scene to the film. Without this scene in the film, the development and the understanding of Howard’s dire situation to the audience would be lacking severely.

The chosen scene represents the frenetic and extremely stressful tone developed and maintained throughout the film. Although the climax of the film is just as important and tense, this scene in particular is the most stressful of the entire film. In the final scenes of the film, Howard forces the people who are after him to watch the basketball game that he bet using the money they are seeking from him. This creates great tension and angst as Howard nor (unless you have been a major NBA fan) the audience knows what will happen. The scene in question gives the same feelings as the climax, in addition to the plethora of different people contacting Howard and changing the train of thought from one distraction to another. This, combined with the careful yet extensive use of real people, locations, stores, and basketball games, in addition to the cinematography, blocking, and mise-en-scenes, cements the the film in the minds of the audience as something that actually happened, rather than a fictional story set in the past. All of these elements together create the most tense, stressful and anxiety-inducing film in recent years.

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