Uncut Gems (2019)

The Safdie Brothers’ breakout film Good Time was a knockout sucker punch that benefited greatly from its total surprise as a grimy novelty. Robert Pattinson’s starring role as an irredeemable scumbag who systematically burns every social bridge he’s crossed in NYC to achieve petty, self-serving goals was the final severed tether to the actor’s previous life as a vampiric teenage heartthrob. The synth assault soundtrack from Oneohtrix Point Never pinned the audience to the back of our seats like an overachieving Gravitron. It sets out to disgust, rattle, and discomfort for every minute of its small-minded heist plot and it succeeds wholesale. At first it appears that the Safdies’ follow-up, Uncut Gems, aims to repeat that very same experience – bringing back OPN for another oppressive score, revisiting the grimy underbelly of NYC, and swapping out RPatz for another against-type actor who’s far more talented than the roles he’s best remembered for implies. The nature of this particular lead actor’s screen presence changes the texture of the film entirely, though, subtly redirecting the same basic parts of Good Time towards an entirely new purpose.

Adam Sandler stars in Uncut Gems as a diamond jeweler and gambling addict who’s willing to melt down his entire life for the chance of orchestrating the ultimate score. He shuffles borrowed money around from sports bet to sports bet, caters to a wealthy black clientele of rappers and athletes who are lightyears outside his expected social orbit, and obsessively nurtures the sale of an uncut Ethiopian gemstone that appears to have magical, cosmic powers (but isn’t worth nearly as much as he self-appraises it to be). Like RPatz in Good Time, he runs around NYC making petty, self-serving chess moves to seal this ultimate score until everyone in the world is pissed off at him: his wife, his mistress, his bookie, the various mobsters that he owes money, Kevin Garnett, The Weekend, everyone. Unlike RPatz, he responds to this exponentially growing list of enemies by shouting with the same apoplectic rage that defined Sandler’s comedic roles in 90s cult classics like Billy Madison & Happy Gilmore. Whereas Good Time is all clenched jaws & gnawed fingernails from start to finish, Uncut Gems distinguishes itself by being consistently, disturbingly funny – thanks to Sandler’s willingness to redirect his usual schtick towards the grotesque.

While Uncut Gems didn’t have me quite as enraptured or rattled as the surprise blunt force of Good Time did, I’m in awe of how it revises that throat-hold thriller’s template into a darkly comedic farce without losing any of its feel-bad exploitation discomforts. Sandler’s unscrupulous gambler/jeweler shamelessly benefits from the exploitation of diamond miners in far-off foreign countries and employees just under his nose, and the movie never lets him off the hook for these sins. Watching the walls close in on him as he makes crooked deals across town is weirdly, uncomfortably fun, though, if not only through the ludicrous caricature of Sandler’s performance. The Safdies amplify the humor of this grimy feel-bad comedy with throwaway gags about cosmic colonoscopies & bejeweled Furbies and, in a larger sense, by bringing all its disparate elements to a frenetic climax in a classic farcical structure. Still, the responsibility of changing the film’s basic flavor enough to distinguish it from Good Time falls entirely on Sandler’s shoulders. It’s a bet that pays off, as he’s capable enough to make the audience laugh while simultaneously making us feel like shit. Repeating that bet for a third revision of Good Time‘s template would be ill-advised, though. Hopefully, the Safdies will realize it’s time to walk away from the table while they’re still up and find a new angle for their next project.

-Brandon Ledet

Good Time (2017)

I had no idea who up & coming filmmakers The Safdie Brothers were before seeing their most recent collaboration, Good Time, at the cinema, but by the tail end of the opening credits I was already mesmerized by the talent of Benny Safdie in particular. It wasn’t the fact that Benny co-directed (along with brother Josh Safdie, who penned the screenplay) while also making the risky decision to play a mentally disabled thief in one of the central roles that won me over as a fan. It was actually Benny’s sound editing credit that most caught my attention. From the opening frames of the film it’s immediately apparent that the sound design, which heavily features a synth-soaked score from weirdo pop act Oneohtrix Point Never, is the film’s driving force, the main source of its tension & eerie beauty. In Good Time, even the beautiful things are deeply ugly and the way The Safdie Brothers drown their audience in a nonstop deluge of oppressive sounds is just as painful as it is divinely transcendent. Even if every other element at play were dull or uninspired, the film’s synthy soundscape would be enough on its own to push the film into the Best of the Year conversations, which is not too shabby for a couple directors who’ve seemingly come out of nowhere (i.e. documentary filmmaking).

Robert Pattinson stars as an irredeemable scumbag who lands his mentally disabled brother (Benny Safdie) in jail after a botched bank heist. Good Time mostly follows this despicable anti-hero down a complex labyrinth where he schemes to retrieve his brother from police custody. In his desperation he fails to plan ahead for future mishaps, barely evading police custody at every turn himself as he inches closer to retrieving his brother. Any shred of sympathy for Pattinson’s bank-robbing underdog is near-impossible to hold onto as he consistently steps all over old women, children, people of color, and the mentally ill in his single-minded quest to break his brother out. Occasionally this monstrously selfish mission is interrupted by tangents like a long monologue about the worst acid trip in history or an especially unhinged performance from Jennifer Jason Leigh as a wealthy heiress with a violent chemical imbalance, but Pattinson’s scumbag lead will only pay attention to those distractions for as long as it takes him to figure out a way to exploit them. Like Gravity or Mad Max: Fury Road, Good Time is composed entirely of a series of obstacles. There’s an intense moral conundrum at the core of the plot where you want to see the lead succeed in saving his brother from a prison system he’s not mentally equipped to navigate, but also want him to fail for the sake of the marginalized people he hurts along the way. There’s hardly time to wrestle with that conflict in the moment, however, since each obstacle pummels the screen in rapid succession with full, unforgiving force.

Good Time is essentially a mutated version of Refn’s Drive with all of the sparkling romance thoroughly supplanted with dispiriting grime. Filtering an old-fashioned heist plot through Oneohtrix Point Never’s blistering synths and the neon-soaked cinematography of Sean Price Williams (who also shot Queen of Earth) sounds like it’d be a blast, but The Safdie Brothers employ those electric lights & sounds for a much more grueling purpose. Occasionally, Good Time will introduce a stray element of dangerous fun, like an amusement park funhouse or a Sprite bottle full of LSD, but mostly the directors allow their documentary work to inform the tone of the picture. Good Time is defined less by neon glamor than it is soaked in the economy-driven discomfort of state-sanctioned psychoanalysis sessions or the cold glow of television-lit hospital rooms. There’s deeply uncomfortable sexual & racial context to most of the main character’s crimes, but there’s also an economic desperation in his acts of theft, kidnapping, and breaking & entering that inform his decisions to commit them. In one telling scene, he pauses to watch an episode of the 90s reality show Cops, which similarly repackaged systemic economic hardship as an entertainment commodity, only to be disgusted by the pain on display on the screen. Good Time aims to disgust & discomfort in that same way, offering all of the surface entertainment of a film like Drive without softening its real life implications with the fantasy of movie magic the way that the film does so well.

If nothing else, Good Time is an excellent case for each of its individual players as creative powerhouses to be reckoned with. Jennifer Jason Leigh has already established herself as an actor to beware in titles like The Hateful Eight & eXistenZ, so Robert Pattinson’s role here works much better as a breakout calling card performance (much more so than his own Cronenberg vehicle, Cosmopolis), as despicable as it is. The Safdie Brothers also stand a chance to make names for themselves as actors, writers, and directors in what has to be their widest release to date, especially in the brazen way they dare to punish their newfound audience. If Good Time works as a showcase for any one in element in particular, however, its effect is most heavily weighted in its attention to sound. Benny Safdie’s masterful integration of the tireless Oneohtrix Point Never synths in the diegetic sounds of Good Time‘s grimy crime world environments is truly one of the great marvels of the year, something that deserves to be experienced as big and as loud as possible.

-Brandon Ledet