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Case study: Uncut Gems

Uncut Gems is known for its sensory overload, but the most poignant point is found in its absence

A lot has been said about Uncut gems since it has come out; Sandler’s Oscar worthy performance, Julia Fox’s incredible portrayal considering this is her first role as an actress, Darius Khondji’s vivid cinematography, Daniel Lopatin’s score, and, of course, the stellar work done by the Safdie brothers in terms of directing and writing. It’s an incredible movie that is exemplary in how it portrays gambling addictions, how it uses Murphy’s law (anything that can go wrong, will go wrong) to guide the pace and story, how it makes a complete jerk of a person also an endearing protagonist; long story short, it is a fantastic movie that does a lot of things right.

What stands out to me though, what makes this movie special, is how the Safdie brothers use a stylistic choice for the entirety of the movie to make certain points about our lives, and how the absence of that choice (ironically) speaks volumes to the viewer towards the message of the movie; if you’ve seen any reviews or critiques of the movie, you’ll have no doubt surmised that I’m talking about the sensory overload constantly prevalent in this movie. Characters will speak at the same time as each other and will yell so that they can be heard, several “conversations” are taking place at the same time, sounds are loud, the music is louder, lights are bright and colors are vibrant; as a viewer, this movie is purposefully disorienting and hard to keep up with, because Howard Ratner’s world (Sandler’s character) is disorienting and hard to keep up with. He has so many tabs to keep track of that are of the utmost “urgency”, which means he can’t focus on every single one, so the tabs need to yell and insert themselves in the picture, otherwise they will never get what they want. So here’s part of Ratner’s growing concerns: He spends the money he has loaned from his brother-in-law Arno to buy a rare uncut gem from Ethiopia, hoping to auction it off and make massive profits to pay off his debts and get his career back on track; however, things get complicated fast. Kevin Garnett visits his shop and becomes obsessed with the gem, forcing Ratner to lend it to him, and not being particularly punctual or willing in keeping his side of the bargain; meanwhile, his “associate” realizes that his partnership with Ratner is one-sided and turns on him; all the while, Ratner’s personal life is even more of a mess with kids he has no idea how to connect to and an ex-wife who hates his guts, alongside having a relationship with his employee at the shop. This is just part of the things going on in this movie and it is as chaotic and borderline incomprehensible as it sounds and that’s why this movie works; it’s like a cacophony of different elements coming together to create this chaotic masterpiece of loud noises and its utterly captivating. It says a lot about Ratner too; this is a man who made himself big by talking fast and taking risks, but lately that strategy hasn’t worked out for him, though this is no longer a strategy for him (if it ever was), this is now a disease. He cannot and will not stop, regardless of what’s at stake or what he has won; in a moving exchange with Garnett later on (which should have been enough to at least earn Sandler a nomination), Ratner proclaims that this is how he wins, by risking it all and winning large. He doesn’t want to play it safe; he doesn’t want to win small and go again; he is in it for the high risks and big rewards and anything less is not worth settling for. He’s chasing a high and in order to get what he wants, he has to talk fast and loud, risk big, and think on his feet. But, even though this is Ratner’s story, the world does not revolve around him and other characters have the needs that they want to deal with; his “PR” guy figures out he was manipulated and wants to strike deals on his own, Garnett is obsessed with the gem and wants it for himself, Ratner’s brother-in-law and his associates want the money they are owed, there are deadlines that need to be met.

Ratner has a lot going on and if you want his attention you have to be louder than everyone else, be more aggressive and threatening than everything else going on; you can understand the significance of this by studying the story, the audiovisual cues and techniques, by looking at the grand picture– you can also look for the absence of this sensory overload. There are a few occasions of this absence and most of them are meaningful, but I want to concentrate on a particular one, centered around two brothers: The Bronstein brothers. Like a lot of other characters in the movie, the Bronstein brothers loaned money to Ratner and are now looking to collect, but unlike most other characters, they don’t harass Ratner or yell at him to gain his attention; instead, they are civilized. They talk at normal volume, they ask nicely for their money, and are eager to strike a deal in order to get what they want as efficiently and as peacefully as possible; in this world, that’s a weakness. They get hustled when they are given a fake Rolex as a sign of Ratner’s ability to pay them back, they are constantly shoved out of the way or interrupted and left unable to do their business by louder, more aggressive individuals; even when they get annoyed about the lack of progress and start being more demanding, Ratner’s other issues are more threatening than they are and are left by the wayside once again. They actually never get their money or their moment to talk with Ratner; in fact I’m willing to bet that most people who see this movie won’t remember them or their role, because by the end of it, they don’t have one besides being another group hurt by Ratner’s insatiable appetite for risks. That’s exactly the reason why they are in this movie; they are not part of the storm that’s about to hit Ratner’s life, they are not there to add to his vast source of problems, they are there to show that in this world if you want something done, you better be louder than the guy next to you, otherwise they are going to get what they want, and you will keep your sense of civility and nothing else. In this concrete jungle of New York, its dog eat dog, and smaller breeds don’t stand a chance.

That’s what the Bronstein brothers are to Howard; a reminder of what he will end up being if he plays it safe, if he doesn’t risk big, if he compromises for less than what he wants. Howard was never a pit-bull or a rottweiler, but back in the day, he conned his way to become a big dog by talking fast and smart, risking big and winning bigger, making deals that worked for him; all these recent setbacks are nothing more than that. He is going to be with the big dogs again, where he belongs; he won’t be a pushover, his needs will not be overshadowed or disregarded by other people bigger, better, or louder than him. This is how Howard Ratner wins. 

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