The title of “Uncut Gems” could stand in for the whole thing: This is one rough, glittering beast of a movie. It also refers to a valuable black opal, its facets mostly encased in rock, that in the film’s opening scene we see being dug out of the side of a mountain by two Ethiopian miners while their bosses are distracted by a grisly pit accident.
That opal will spend the rest of “Uncut Gems” tantalizingly out of reach of one Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler), a Manhattan diamond dealer, gambling addict, part-time husband, and full-time hustler. Because Howard never stops moving, neither does the movie, and the effect is both exhausting and electrifying. Watching this latest bulletin from the Safdie brothers, Benny and Josh, is like grabbing hold of a high-voltage line: It doesn’t feel that great, but good luck letting go.
Howard’s in hock to a shady brother-in-law named Arno (Eric Bogosian) to the tune of 100 large; Arno has called in some out-of-town muscle in the form of two Boston thugs, one of whom (Keith Williams Richards) has a face like the back of a Chelsea cement truck and the eyes of a dead fish. “Uncut Gems” follows Howard over the course of a few days as he stays a step ahead of his pursuers while trying to arrange the deal that will set him up for life (he says): the sale of that opal at auction for possibly a million dollars.
Howard has a worst enemy, and it’s himself — that’s the comedy of “Uncut Gems” and its tragedy as well, especially for those unlucky enough to come into his orbit. He has a wife out in the suburbs, Dinah, who’s pretty much done with him, and the pure annihilation Idina Menzel can pack into a throwaway glare is marvelous to behold. Aside from one son (Jonathan Aranbayev) who still worships him — which won’t last the movie — his kids have thrown in the towel, too. Why wouldn’t they, when his daughter’s school play is interrupted by having to get dad out of his car trunk, where he’s been dumped, naked, by his creditors?
But the opal, the opal — that will make everything right, or so Howard promises his mistress, Julia (Julia Fox), who also works in his brightly lit second-floor retail shop on 47th Street. It’s what he brags to his elderly father-in-law (Judd Hirsch) at a crowded family seder where the Ten Plagues get a full airing. It’s how he hustles Kevin Garnett, the Celtics star played engagingly by Kevin Garnett, into believing the opal has some kind of lucky mojo. (The movie takes place in 2012, during the semi-finals between the Celtics and the 76ers.)
When Garnett insists on borrowing the jewel — leaving his emerald-encrusted championship ring as collateral — the stage is set for the movie’s high-tension Rube Goldberg treadmill, with Howard running as fast as he can while getting nowhere. Somehow there’s a nightclub fight with The Weeknd (playing himself, too); somehow there’s money passed along a ledge, a visit to Mohegan Sun, and a last-ditch gamble that any sane person would run from in terror. The movie starts in high gear and stays there, the synthesized squalls of the score by Oneohtrix Point Never chasing the hero every step of the way. They should have defibrillator stations posted in the lobby.
Let me be very clear about Adam Sandler in this movie: He is brilliant. The actor makes his living off idiot comedies and every seven years or so deigns to take on a dramatic role, just to remind us he can. “Uncut Gems” is of a higher order than that. Sandler inhabits this character fully and without vanity, working Howard’s ready smile and desperate eyes and needling, never-ending sales pitch into a devastating portrait of a lesser shark, the kind who’s always late for the kill. It’s not an actorly performance; it’s instinctual, unerring — bone-deep.
“Uncut Gems” is a New York movie the way directors like Martin Scorsese and Abel Ferrara used to make: street-level, profane, mesmerized by awful men. Ferrara has tended to romanticize such figures, but Scorsese never did, and the Safdies stick to that tradition. (Not coincidentally, Scorsese lends his name to “Uncut Gems” as executive producer.) The brothers grew up in New York before studying film at BU; their father worked in the diamond district; the movie feels set in known territory.
Their earlier movies (“Good Time,” “Heaven Knows What”) have been terrific. This one’s the best yet, if hardly for the faint of heart. The Safdies don’t judge Howard Ratner, or celebrate him, or condemn him. They just let us watch from a safe distance, marveling at all the balls he keeps in the air and knowing it’s only a matter of time before they fall.
Directed by Benny and Josh Safdie. Written by Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie, and Ronald Bronstein. Adam Sandler, Kevin Garnett, Julia Fox, Idina Menzel, Eric Bogosian, Lakeith Stanfield. At Kendall Square. 135 minutes. R (pervasive strong language, violence, some sexual content, brief drug use).