You won’t see a better-made film this year than Uncut Gems, the Safdie brothers’ propulsive new thriller about the street-level misadventures of a petty crook. Nor will you see one that’s more stressful, aggravating or intensely unpleasant to watch. Uncut Gems may well be a minor masterpiece. It might also be the least enjoyable Adam Sandler movie of all time.

As with their previous film Good Time, Josh and Benny Safdie have forged a stunningly effective tale of a man with an unparalleled ability to dig himself into deeper and deeper trouble. Sandler spends two hours at the centre of a spiralling, self-inflicted catastrophe involving Ethiopian opals, big-money bets and knuckle-cracking debt collectors. The plot is filled with a sense of mounting distress, reflected and heightened by the way it’s told: the camera ducks and weaves restlessly, voices yell over each other and jockey for our attention, garish interiors assault our eyes, discordant music fades in and out, diamond necklaces sparkle luridly, doors jam at vital moments.

Good Time was a similarly sweat-inducing experience but it did have one merciful element in that its protagonist, Robert Pattinson, stayed largely silent. Sandler’s character, on the other hand, never shuts up – he’s a one-man stream of bluster and bullshit, constantly making promises he can’t fulfil, and has a maddening habit of trying to hold multiple high-stakes conversations at once. Keeping pace with his wheeler-dealer bravado requires infinite patience. To put it simply, Uncut Gems is a film that should come with a panic attack warning.

Of course, not every trip to the cinema should leave you feeling warm and fuzzy. In the case of horror films, for instance, the discomfort is the draw. But horror films tend to puncture the tension with jump-scares, which offer their own perverse pleasure. Uncut Gems is the tantric equivalent, with all the rising pressure but none of the release. Besides, being scared is different to being stressed. The Safdie brothers’ films cause stress via a particular kind of sustained intensity, and as such have more in common with a film such as Pi, or the final stretch of Requiem for a Dream. Except that where those films culminated in nightmarish excess, the Safdies’ movies stay grounded in gritty realism – and are all the more claustrophobic for it.

Uncut Gems is the work of once-in-a-generation film-makers with remarkable vision and ambition, a visceral antidote to the cookie-cutter blockbusters that generally clog up the multiplexes. Yet, whereas the Marvel movies, for example, are infuriating because they can’t generate any jeopardy or tension, Uncut Gems has the same effect via opposite means, dragging you by the lapels through wrong turn after wrong turn and towards inevitable calamity. It is a thing of technical mastery and uncompromising execution – but so is a punch in the face from Mike Tyson, and that doesn’t go on for two hours.

There is one exception. Midway through the film, Sandler’s wife finally snaps, and the scene falls silent while she tells him, slowly and deliberately: “I think you’re the most annoying person on the planet. I hate being with you, I hate looking at you, and if I had my way, I would never see you again.” It’s a relief to hear someone say it, and it’s the one tiny concession to catharsis in a film that’s otherwise a relentless bombardment of anxiety and apprehension.

Most great movies offer the experience of glorious escapism, leaving you dismayed when they finally end and you’re faced once again with real life. Uncut Gems is a great movie with a difference: when it’s over, you escape gratefully back into the real world, safe in the knowledge that life’s pulse-lowering mundanities aren’t so bad after all.


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