The sibling filmmakers talk capitalism, Judaism, working with the Weeknd and making Furby relevant again
UNCUT GEMS (Josh and Benny Safdie). Opens on December 25. 134 minutes. See listing.
Josh and Benny Safdie are on a blistering film streak.
In the past decade, the New York-based sibling filmmakers directed the basketball documentary Lenny Cooke (2013), the addiction drama Heaven Knows What (2014) and the grimy crime thriller Good Time (2017). Each one is striking and singular. Together they laid the groundwork for Uncut Gems, a nerve-racking black comedy that connects the major themes from all their films: addiction, capitalism, toxic relationships, exploited labour and race relations.
Set in 2012, replete with period-appropriate iPhones, Uncut Gems stars Adam Sandler as Howard Ratner, a jeweller in New York City’s Diamond District who is addicted to risk. He places complicated bets on basketball games using loan money plans to auction off an Ethiopian black opal he believes is worth millions even though he has a ready customer in NBA star Kevin Garnett (playing himself) and navigates tumultuous relationships with his fed-up wife Dinah (Idina Menzel) and his younger girlfriend Julia (scene-stealer Julia Fox).
Uncut Gems is inspired from stories told by the Safdies’ father, who worked as a runner and salesman in the Diamond District. They wrote the first draft of the screenplay immediately after finishing another film inspired by their father, 2009’s Daddy Longlegs, starring frequent collaborator Ronald Bronstein. A decade ago, the Safdies couldn’t raise the budget required to make Gems, much less land a meeting with Adam Sandler, their first choice to play the lead.
“Once you can’t make something, your interests move to what’s in the script because you want to deepen your knowledge,” explains Benny during a joint phone interview with Josh.
The Safdies spent four years on Lenny Cooke, which informed the way they wrote Garnett’s role in Uncut Gems. After that, Josh went to the Diamond District to do research and met Arielle Holmes, a recovering heroin addict who was interning with a jeweller. She became both Heaven Knows What’s inspiration and star.
“We couldn’t make Uncut Gems at that time, so we made a film about her life,” says Benny, adding that Heaven Knows What’s addiction theme influenced Howard’s self-destructive behaviour. “The addiction aspect deepens your knowledge of what it means to get lost in a cycle and not be able to see through to the other side.”
The toxic relationships in Heaven Knows What were initially intended to be a plot thread in Uncut Gems, between Howard and the two women in his life.
“It’s still in Gems, but it was a lot bigger before,” says Benny.
Heaven Knows What made the Safdies a known entity, attracting attention from Martin Scorsese (who executive produced Uncut Gems) and Robert Pattinson, who emailed the Safdies, enthusiastic to collaborate.
The brothers still didn’t have the budget for Uncut Gems, so they made Good Time, a nervy and exhilarating one-night odyssey scripted specifically for Pattinson. His Connie is a criminal who leans on his own white privilege to get away with a lot of shit, while Black bystanders suffer in his wake.
“[Making Good Time], we learned about pacing, genre, overt narrative plotting and multiple characters talking at the same time,” says Benny. “And we became better filmmakers.”
Good Time premiered at Cannes, wowed a wide audience thereafter, got Mr. Happy Madison’s attention and paved the way for Uncut Gems. In my review I compare the film to Good Time – not because both are delirious thrillers that put knots in my stomach but because of the way both tackle race. Uncut Gems observes the relationship between race and economics: Howard makes money moves like hedge funds manager, and he treats the Black men in his orbit like both customers and commodities.
The movie opens in an Ethiopian mine, where we see an exploited labour force and an injured worker whose leg is split open – the Safdies describe the health and safety at the location as horrible. From that mine comes the film’s coveted black opal. Howard smuggles it to the U.S. through a Black Jewish connection and loans it for collateral to Garnett. He then uses the money to bet on the player’s performance in subsequent games. When Garnett confronts Howard about his part in a cycle of oppression that exploits Ethiopian miners, he shrugs it off.
“The movie is a lot more about Judaism than it is about race,” says Josh, comparing it to the Old Testament, which, like Uncut Gems, is about learning through suffering. (Also, *wink, wink* at that title.)
“There’s a perceived connection,” says Josh, describing an unspoken unity when Jews see each other. He describes Howard as an egalitarian who would say he doesn’t necessarily see colour. But he also feels connected to Black people due to Judaism. Howard references the Beta Israelites, the Jewish community in Ethiopia responsible for smuggling the black opal. “A lot of people believe that Jesus was Black.”
There’s also a perceived connection between the material goods that are pursued and peddled in the film and more mystical forces. The value placed on the black opal inspires an almost religious fervour.
In his New Yorker review of Uncut Gems, Richard Brody elucidates how the film’s themes and tones are inherently Jewish: “Portable wealth defined by no one currency corresponds to the long-time demands of rushed migration, as well as the inner state of exile and outsiderhood that’s part of the Jewish heritage.”
“The movie is about capitalism,” says Josh, “as both a machine that drives separation but also as a machine that liberates. That’s why capitalism is the greatest story ever told. The movie is about whatever sort of spirituality exists in capitalism and the mobility that capitalism presents, whether it’s illusory or not.”
In exploring capitalism – and the blurred lines between relationships that are transactional, spiritual and emotional – the Safdies have also created a hall of mirrors in which characters become competing reflections of one another.
Early on, a loan shark’s henchmen jack Howard for cash and his (likely fake) Rolex. Not long after, two more debt collectors bumble along, and Howard voluntarily hands them another Rolex (definitely fake). The Rolexes are from his associate Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), who reels in clients like Garnett. The way Demany gives Howard the runaround sometimes mirrors the latter’s own behaviour. But Demany is also a mirror to Julia, Howard’s mistress. She’s an alternative to Dinah, but also his employee, who, like Demany, goes out to nightclubs to find prospective clients. She reels in Toronto R&B singer Abel Tesfaye, aka the Weeknd.
“He going to be major,” Julia tells Howard. “Even though he’s from Canada.”
In Uncut Gems, Julia Fox (left) sees a prospective client in Toronto R&B star The Weeknd.
Like Garnett, The Weeknd plays himself in a wig that recreates his wild locs from 2012. He’s a punk who refuses to perform unless he’s in black light and winds up tussling with Howard.
The Safdies became friends with Tesfaye and his creative director La Mar Taylor after Heaven Knows What came out. He recruited the brothers to direct a music video, but it never happened. The Scarborough native is a cinephile and art fiend, so they often share obscure movie recommendations or geek out over cartoonist Robert Crumb and the like. As Uncut Gems was coming together, Tesfaye jumped on board.
“He said, ‘Dude I have to be a part of it. Your movie opens in Ethiopia,’” Josh recalls, reciting Tesfaye’s reaction to the script. “He’s one of the most famous people from Ethiopia [by descent]. Those coincidences become purposeful, when things become aligned.”
Eagle-eyed audiences will notice Tesfaye is the only cast member who wears the blinged-out Furby, a coveted jewellery piece that has already became a social media star.
The Safdies and their prop designer Catherine Miller took the late-90s pop-culture relic, a furry robotic toy with moving eyes, and housed it in gold-plating and gems. As soon as the Uncut Gems trailer was released, a close-up shot of the Furby’s moving eyes became the film’s signature gif. That’s all good and fine, since the Furby isn’t a throwaway gag.
“The Furby is a representation of the trappings of capitalism, consumerism and materialism,” says Josh. “The eyes are looking around like, ‘What are we even chasing here?’”