“When you win, it’s all that matters.” – Kevin Garnett
“This is how I win” – Howard Ratner
It’s been almost six months since the first time I saw Uncut Gems and I still can’t get Howard Ratner’s goofy-ass grin out of my head. Contrary to what you might expect from an Adam Sandler film, it’s not a feel-good smile. It won’t make you laugh. It will haunt you. It will haunt you because it’s the grin of a dead man, blood pouring out of the bullet hole in the back of his head. That grin is the pitiful echo of his short-lived Pyrrhic victory, the gleeful death mask of a man who could only die happy after getting what he wanted, because another breath would mean he’d always want more. But before we dig into why that chaotic ending just won’t stop haunting me, we have to start at the beginning.
Uncut Gems stars Sandler as Howard Ratner, the Diamond District jeweler around which the entire film revolves. But it doesn’t start with him; it starts with calamity. During a horrific mining accident, two miners sneak away with chunks of precious black opal. With Daniel Lopatin‘s retro synth score droning in the background, the camera zooms into the kaleidoscopic colors of the gem, transporting the viewer inside the stone, the universe, and ultimately… Howard’s colon thanks to a routine colonoscopy. Yep. It’s all the same, says Uncut Gems, whether a stolen precious stone or the aging flesh of an addict, these are the materials from which myths are born. As Darius Khondji’s vibrant, saturated cinematography enforces, we never stop journeying through that gem towards the myth.
The film establishes the matter of Howard’s imminent mortality out of the gate; his colonoscopy found and he’ll need a biopsy to test for cancer. But it’s not until Howard leaves his doctor’s office that we start to understand he’s facing much more immediate threats thanks to Howard’s risky gambling addiction. In short, he owes a mountain of money to some dangerous people, but that’s not gonna stop Howard from being Howard.
Before the opening credits even finish, Howard’s bookie is pleading with him to take one thing at a time so he can finish placing a bet. But Howard’s already got his eye on his next big “win”: NBA star Kevin Garnett is in his store looking to buy, just in time for playoffs, which means another opportunity to bet big. He rushes over, wowing KG and his entourage with an iconic, blinged-out Furby, but it’s only a matter of minutes before it happens again. While KG is touring the store, Howard’s attentions are pulled to an even bigger bounty, the precious black opal we saw in the opening moments of the movie finally making its way from Africa to his hands. Howard waxes poetic about the opal, bragging about the fortune he’s about to make at auction. He breezes through his spiel with that sickening grin slapped on his face, barely even taking a minute to acknowledge the deadly serious henchman of his bookie, Arno (Eric Bogosian), who’ve come to collect on a $100,000 debt.
But because Howard has his gem, he believes he has it all. (That rock’s gonna make him a million at auction.) Unfortunately, so does Kevin Garnett, who feels a spiritual connection to the opal and believes it will boost his game. When he stares into the glittering gem, he’s transported through it, much as we were in the opening scene, seeing his past and the gem’s history all tangled up. Once again; man, myth, material, it’s all the same to Uncut Gems.
And so begins a wild and excruciating sprint towards an ever-evolving, expanding payoff. Howard wheels and deals, barters and bargains, and risks it all over and over again in pursuit of whatever “win” is waiting for him on the other side. For the next two hours, Howard is a shark in a shrinking tank, frantically wielding his old-fashioned huckster charm to keep his bookies at by, navigate his crumbling family life, and make the big score, be it through the opal or betting on KG. Howard’s obsessive drive for more is the frantic underscore to the core themes of Uncut Gems, a film that’s all about the promised payoff of “leveling up,” the relativity of value, and the self-destructive compulsion to win no matter the cost.
As Josh Safdie explained during a TIFF Q&A, “This whole movie is just showing how everyone runs around and tries to achieve these things and think that’ll bring them to a higher place and it’s always gonna get better if you get this one thing.”
Howard’s entire sense of value is wrapped up in that which he doesn’t already have. And it’s worth noting, he has a lot. Though he may not be wealthy enough to have $100K liquid, it’s obvious Howard is well off. His wife, Dina (Idina Menzel), remarks about a jealous woman wanting their home, and it isn’t even his only place… or lover. He also has a ritzy apartment he shares with his mistress Julia (Julia Fox). Whether it’s a younger woman when he already has a beautiful wife or a big score when he should just be paying off his debts, Howard is always so focused on what he doesn’t have, he never takes a breath to enjoy his many, many blessings.
It’s a compulsive, self-destructive need for more and better, and it leads to his downfall at every turn. Every time Howard tries to get over on someone and it backfires. He pawns the Celtics ring KG gives him as collateral instead of keeping it safe, which ends up screwing him over twice. He uses the pawn money to place a bet instead of paying his debt and Arno cancels the bet before he can collect. He tries to up-bid KG for the opal at the auction and ends up having to buy the gem back at a penalty. In the end, when he risks it all for the ultimate score, he pays the ultimate price.
But in each and every instance, Howard is unable to cherish the value of what he has, because he’s stuck on the value of what he doesn’t. In fact, how does he pitch the value of the opal to Kevin Garnett? “You can’t get your hands on these things.” Howard values the gem (in fact, he overvalues it as he learns the hard way on the day of the auction) because of its intangibility. For what it’s worth, intangibility isn’t just an existential concept, it’s also a phrase used in marketing, related to selling something you can’t feel or touch. Selling a promise. In that regard, Uncut Gems isn’t just the story of how a life can be unraveled by the neediness of greed, it’s a broader look at how humanity ascribes value to the world around us and how it shapes not just our lives, but the systems we build.
Josh Safdie explained at TIFF,
“I think the movie is about myth and mythology. How we mythologize things. A rock. Money. Capitalism. There’s a lot of mysticism in there. And this idea of seeing this man who we watched be a planet, a sun, that everyone revolves around him, just have life pulled from him in that last moment dive into him and realize that he is the uncut gem, and then spidering out and seeing all the characters you realize how his life — I think that’s what happens after death, we enter myth.”
It might sound a bit on the nose to say, “Howard was the real uncut gem all along,” but in doing so, the Safdies also pull off a tremendous cinematic trick with their antihero. Howard Ratner isn’t just an insufferable torrent of self-destruction and selfish consumption, he’s also a bad person full stop. It’s not the affair, plenty of people come out the other side of that with more wisdom. It’s not even the fact that he’s a relentless asshole to everyone around him. It’s the fact that, when confronted with the realization his big win could cost the lives of his wife and children, he didn’t call it off. Bad Person. But the audience can’t help but invest in him, to root for his win.
And win he does, but as always, with a penalty. Howard sells the opal to KG for $165K, but instead of paying Arno the money he owes, he sends Julia away with a big ol’ bag of cash and an insane parlay bet to place on the playoff game that night. When Arno and his henchmen catch wise, Howard locks them in the chamber between his safety doors and they, furiously, settle in to watch the game. In a miracle of miracles, against every odd, all of Howard’s bets pay off. It’s a frantic, nerve-fraying final act that somehow translates the breathless tension of a playoff basketball game while upping the stakes with a million dollars and a few lives on the line.
But he wins. Oh how he wins. Screaming in ecstasy, he lets Arno and his henchmen out of the chamber with that dumb grin on his face… and immediately gets shot in the head. Howard goes, the grin stays. It’s gutting. It hits hard, because whoops, we’ve decided he’s a person of value. No doubt that’s partly due to the genius casting of beloved and powerfully charismatic Sandler in the role, but an impressive trick all the same. Even though he fucked over everyone who crossed his path, Uncut Gems made you invest in Howard. And in doing so, the “myth” of Howard Ratner in the real world.
The film’s final moments echo the beginning, traveling through the bullethole in Howard’s cheek to an extended trip back through the glittering, cosmic world of the uncut gem. It’s all the same, the cycle continues. Whether a mining disaster or a murder; it’s tragedy, wealth, tragedy, wealth, repeat. “What’s going to happen next, after this?” asked co-director Benny Safdie during the TIFF talk. “That million will go into something, that cycle will repeat.”
But not for Howard Ratner, and that’s why I haven’t been able to get that dumb, horrifying grin out of my head. Uncut Gems is a movie that leaves me physically rattled, wrung all the way out. Howard dies ugly, and so does Arno. But the haunting truth is, for Howard, it’s a happy ending in an unhappy world. Like the legendary KG said, “When you win, it’s all that matters.” Howard Ratner finally won, he just had to lose everything.