Let’s analyze those eerie ultimate seconds and what they all represent.
“When you win, it’s all that matters.” – Kevin Garnett
“This is how I win” – Howard Ratner
I’m still unable to get Howard Ratner’s silly-ass grin out of my mind, regardless of how much time has passed since I first watched Uncut Gems. It isn’t a happy smile at all, despite what you may anticipate from a movie starring Adam Sandler. You won’t laugh at it. You’ll be haunted by it. It’s gonna stay with you since it depicts a dead man grinning while blood pours from the bullet hole in his head. That grin is a sorrowful reminder of his fleeting Pyrrhic victory, the joyous death mask of a guy who was only able to pass away content after obtaining his goals since continuing to survive would lead to him constantly seeking new ones. But first, we must begin at the opening in order to understand the reason that the tumultuous finale simply won’t go away from tormenting me.
Sandler plays Howard Ratner, the Diamond District jeweler who serves as the focal point of Uncut Gems. But catastrophe—not Howard—is where it all begins. Two miners elude capture after a terrible mining disaster while escaping with valuable black opal pieces. The camera focuses and enlarges on the gem’s kaleidoscopic colors as Daniel Lopatin’s retro synth score plays in the background, bringing the audience inside the stone, the universe, and finally Howard’s colon courtesy to a regular colonoscopy. The elements where the stories are created are identical in Uncut Gems, even if they are a stolen priceless gem or the wilting flesh of an addict. We don’t seem to stop traveling through that diamond in the direction of the mystery, as Darius Khondji’s vivid, saturated cinematography reinforces.
The movie sets up right away that Howard will die soon because a tumor was discovered during his colonoscopy, necessitating a biopsy to check for malignancy. Yet it isn’t until Howard departs the doctor’s clinic that we begin to realize that his reckless betting addiction is putting him in danger from much more direct sources. In other words, he owes some very menacing individuals a ton of money, but that won’t prevent Howard from behaving like Howard.
Howard’s bookmaker begs him to take things slowly so he can complete placing a wager before the beginning credits have even ended. However, our main character already has his sights set on his upcoming significant “win”: Just in time for the playoffs, NBA star Kevin Garnett visited his shop with a shopping list in hand. This presented another significant wagering chance. He dashes over and impresses Garnett and his group with a famous, blinged-out Furby, but it doesn’t take long for it to occur one more time. While KG is looking around the shop, Howard’s focus is drawn to an even greater find: the priceless black opal that we first watched in the film is now in his possession after traveling all the way from Africa. In addition to waxing lyrical about the opal, Howard boasts about the wealth he’s going to earn at bidding. He glides through his speech while sporting that obscene grin, barely pausing to notice Eric Bogosian’s Arno, the dangerous goons who have arrived to take a $100,000 debt for his bookie.
Howard, though, thinks he has got everything since he has his diamond. (That stone will fetch him millions of dollars at bidding!) Sadly, Kevin Garnett agrees, as he feels a spiritual connection to the opal and thinks it will improve his performance. He is taken through the brilliant gem as we were in the opening scene, witnessing how intertwined his past and the stone’s history are. One more time, Uncut Gems don’t care about man, myth, or material differences.
And thus a frantic and agonizing run toward a constantly changing, stretching payoff starts. In an effort to achieve whatever “win” may give him on the other side, Howard haggles, negotiates, deals, and ventures everything over and over again. For the following two hours, Howard is a shark in a dwindling tank, desperately using his old-fashioned huckster charm to fend off his bookies, manage his disintegrating family, and earn the big win, whether it be by gambling on KG or the gems. Uncut Gems’ central themes—the pledged reward of “escalating,” the relativity of worth, and the self-harming will to succeed at any costs—are furiously and unyieldingly undercut by Howard’s obsession for more.
In a TIFF Q&A, Josh Safdie clarified that “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 whole sense of worth is centered in that he lacks. Not to mention, he has a lot. Howard is obviously rich, even if he might not be sufficiently rich to have $100K available. When his wife, Idina Menzel’s Dina, comments about a jealous lady with the ambition of taking their home, it turns out that there was more than one lady and Howard even has more than one house. He and his lover, Julia Fox’s Julia, cohabit a posh residence as well. Furthermore, Howard is constantly concentrated on the things he doesn’t possess, no matter if it is a younger mistress even though he already has an adorable wife, or a big win when he just needs to cover his obligations, and he never pauses to appreciate his numerous favors.
A self-destructive, insatiable greed for more and better results in his demise at every turn. Each time Howard attempts to get the better of someone, it backlashes. Rather than holding the Celtics ring Kevin Garnett offers him safe, he deposits it as collateral, which causes him to lose money twice. Rather than fulfilling his obligations, he places a gamble using the pawn cash, yet his gamble was canceled by Arno before he was able to take home the prize. At the bidding, Howard attempts to outbid Garnett for the gem but finally has to pay a penalty to purchase the opal back. He ultimately pays the final price for risking everything to get the biggest payoff.
Yet in every single case, Howard fails to appreciate the worth of what he already has since he’s fixated on the worth of the things he lacks. In reality, in what way does he explain to KG the worth of the opal? “You can’t get your hands on these things.” Howard highly appreciates the gem; truthfully, he over values it, as he discovers the hard way on the bidding day. FWIW, the term “intangibility” is used in marketing to refer to the sale of something that cannot be felt or touched and isn’t merely an existential idea, like bartering an assurance. Uncut Gems take a wider view of the way mankind assigns value to the environment surrounding us and the way this impacts not only our lives but the institutions we create. Through this method, it is more than just the tale of how a life may be torn asunder by the neediness of always wanting more.
Josh Safdie further clarified 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.”
Believing that “Howard was the real uncut gem all along” may appear to be a bit precise, but the Safdie brothers also perform a fantastic cinematic device with their antihero. Not only is Howard an intolerable torrent of selfishness and self-destruction, the man is generally a bad individual as well. It isn’t the affair, as many individuals escape on the other side having learned more. It isn’t even that Howard treats everybody in his vicinity like a recalcitrant bastard. It’s the reality that he didn’t back out after realizing his major victory may endanger the lives of his family. What an asshole he is. However, viewers feel compelled to support him and believe he will, in the end, succeed.
And of course, he succeeds in winning, but as usual, with a cost. Rather than paying Arno the debt he owes after having the money from selling the opal for KG, which is about $165K, Howard directs Julia to carry that large sum of cash to place a crazy parlay wager on the playoff match that evening. The moment Arno and his goons realize what’s going on, they get confined by Howard into the space between his safety doors, where they fiercely settle down to observe the match. Every single wager of Howard wins in a chain of miracles, against all odds. A million dollars and a few lives are on the line in the ending, which manages to transfer the breathless strain of a playoff basketball match.
But he triumphs. He wins, against every odd. He allows Arno and his goons to be out of the space while screaming in delight and has that stupid grin on his face. Howard was suddenly shot in the forehead shortly after. The grin endures as Howard passes away. It is painful. It hurts since, whoops, we’ve just determined he’s a valuable individual. It’s undeniably in part because Sandler, who is adored and has a strong sense of charisma, was brilliantly cast in the position, but it’s still an incredible trick. Uncut Gems had you invest in Howard Ratner, regardless of how he fucked up everybody who got in his way, through which it solidifies the “legend” of Howard Ratner in contemporary society.
When Howard’s head gets shot, the camera pans through it to take a lengthy tour back through the sparkling, celestial realm of the uncut gem, echoing the opening moments of the movie. The cycle keeps repeating; nothing changes. Doesn’t matter if it’s a homicide or a mining accident, the cycle of tragedy and wealth repeats in the same pattern. In the TIFF interview, co-filmmaker Benny Safdie said, “What’s going to happen next, after this? That million will go into something, that cycle will repeat.”
However, that isn’t the case with Howard, which is the reason I still cannot shake the stupid, awful grin from my head. I feel emotionally and physically shaken and wrung out after watching this movie. Arno and Howard both pass away in an ugly way, and the heartbreaking reality is that it’s a happy ending in an unpleasant world for Howard. Just as the legendary basketball star Kevin Garnett said, “When you win, it’s all that matters.” Howard Ratner ultimately triumphed, only to lose everything.