The Global and the Hyperlocal: Chains of Exploitation, Voyeurism, and Family in Uncut Gems
(Note: HEAVY SPOILERS! All aspects of the film’s plot are discussed, and there are spoilers in both image and text. I strongly recommend viewing the movie knowing as little as possible going in.)
(Note 2: If you would like to read the introduction, it’s available here.)
What’s Past Is Prologue
Uncut Gems opens on a landscape filmed from the sky as the camera soars over Ethiopia and introduces us to a beautiful green–foreshadowing important imagery related to the Boston Celtics, Julia’s lingerie, cash, and gemstone colors–in the form of a lake just before we arrive at the muted browns of the rest of the area surrounding the Welo Mine (and taking care that the audience sees this deep and luxurious green before we see the injury a few seconds later). We won’t see another shot of an open natural space for the remainder of the film. Instead, we’re to be up close and personal, confined to New York buildings and population-density requiring close camera perspectives. We’ll spend a lot of time in places like vehicle interiors, cramped clubs, and busy restaurant kitchens. For how close the humans of the film are forced to be by urban planning, architecture, and camerawork, the main character is always divided and distant from those presumed closest to him, usually covering this up with projection and more bullshitting that somehow benefits himself. His soon-to-be ex-wife Dinah refuses to touch him even to punch him.
Before we encounter the titular gems for the first time, the camera introduces us to a series of images here that will recur throughout the film and create many of the visual components of its structure and themes. After the green lake, we have a yelling and chaotic crowd scene that will later be mirrored but inverted at a basketball game, a miner’s brutal leg injury, a bottle of dirty water that will be mirrored but inverted in the jewelry shop, and an irate miner pointing emphatically at his own eye and then, along with most everyone else, at an overseer whom he’s indicating should be held responsible.
All of these brief and ostensibly trivial images gain larger significance throughout the film, halfway around the world in New York. Despite the intensity and constant looming threats to come for Howard Ratner over the next two hours plus, we won’t see any effect of violence that even approaches the severity of the mine incident until the conclusion of the movie, and it’s crucial to keep in mind that the injury occurs offscreen and Ratner’s violent death is painfully, unavoidably onscreen in multiple layers of the visually partitioned space within the camera (although there might be a temptation to call this an apples and oranges comparison because one of the two events is characterized as an accident, it is clearly presented as an accident resulting from the exploitation of extractive industry and negligence, or insufficient observation, and thus must be considered violence).
The bottle of water (dirty on the surface but nevertheless cleansing and helpful) that we see in the Ethiopia prologue is soon contrasted with Howard’s pushy offers to customers throughout the movie to have some of his nice spring water “(the first on the block to have that”), which is now a status symbol, albeit an empty one like so many others that Howard collects. We never actually see any of Howard’s water bottles in full, much less centered onscreen as in the prologue. The green water of the lake becomes narratively tied to the Celtics and Kevin Garnett’s (hereafter “KG” as in the movie) ring that we see so much of from here, and thematically to the flow of cash implied by Howard’s activities and the global gem trade. The miner’s accusatory eye and the crowd pointing in near unison at the overseer quickly unites the themes of exploitation and voyeurism that we’ll see so much more of, but the film immerses us so thoroughly in Ratner’s life that it’ll be easy to forget about all that until Howard and the audience are forced to confront it directly in the closing act.
The movie makes a point of telling us exactly where it’s going to go from the beginning by highlighting the fundamental connections between the gems, violence, and exploitation on both a global and local scale. This suffering black miner and the workers supporting him, whose diversion provides the moment needed by two other miners to sneak back in and get a cut of rock to smuggle out, are (at least a plurality of them) African Jews. We’re soon to be told this quite directly by Adam Sandler’s white Jewish character in search of the always-elusive big deal to make as he tries to impress KG with his savvy business sensibilities and inquisitive mind. The story fills in the other side of the exploitation framework with a brief but direct and moving conversation about that very topic near the end–moving all the more for the frustration that Ratner is just not getting it because his world is primarily himself and people he can use.
We meet Howard Ratner from a view confined within him or within a screen displaying a view within him, then soon move backward past a subtle, vague mediating boundary in one of the few slow zoom-outs of the film that stands in contrast with the slow zoom in that we’ll see in the closing seconds of the movie. We now see that we were within a hospital monitor he and his doctor are using for a colonoscopy. The camera cuts away. We see Ratner carrying and talking on his phone, another screen. He’s wearing his regular, fully transparent, brown/gold-framed glasses and a bright yellow/gold shirt beneath otherwise black costuming and hair, in contrast with the darkened glasses and black shirt he’ll be wearing when we see him in the final moments. He will almost always be captured on someone else’s screen or looking into one, captured.
In the next moments we see him on security monitors, being buzzed through bulletproof glass partitions, and introducing the viewer to the cramped glass-, mirror-, TV-, and celeb photo-riddled jewelry shop. With that, already the events of the primary narrative begin to escalate. There will be almost no scene to come that doesn’t associate Ratner and his immediate environment with screens and other transparent partitions, purposely associated with them by visual proximity or other means and used to create space and boundaries that fragment physical space in ways that matter to the plot. In virtually every scene, too, something of consequence to the story occurs that unites exploitation, gambling, sexual gratification, and voyeurism, or most of this complex.
Exploitation at Various Scales
“I did that.“
Every object or event from which Ratner tries to obtain monetary value derives the majority of its stated (and, crucially in the context of exploitation and racism, negotiated among white men in broad daylight) value from the exertions of black people’s bodies. It shouldn’t be forgotten either that he explicitly claims credit for the absurdly broad use of bling in music videos. “I started that,” he tells KG. One might expect a bit of a clarification to narrow it down to something that feels a little more realistic, but that’s what we’re left to understand of Ratner’s contribution to the world. When he makes boasts like this, it’s neither just about buttering up a customer nor proximity to celebrity status for its own sake, though these are clearly motivations, but rather money and celebritydom converge to imply an acceleration in how he uses these celebrity statuses to further his own ends, which is part of the exploitative pattern he exhibits. There’s a sense that all this fandom began legitimately as mere passionate hobby from youth before transforming into the pathology that forms the crux of the movie.
At nearly every negotiation, he pumps himself up by proximity to celebrity and trades that for temporary inflated value of something so that he can leverage this into further value extracted from another black person’s body and again inflated as a hedge, theoretically looping forever in the mind of the compulsive gambler. When he’s momentarily jubilant in victory at the end, promising to take Julia to exotic locales, we all know by now how much of a bullshitter he is and how unlikely all that elation will hold for long. There’s no scaffolding underneath all that assumed value, a detail the movie makes sure to represent visually by having him frequently walk through actual construction scaffolding taking place outside the jewelry bazaar.
In order to further foreground the theme of exploitation beyond the prologue and famous “This is how I win” scene that bookends it, I want to focus on a number of Ratner’s lines that could easily be overlooked but add up to an overwhelming amount of corroborating evidence that this is a movie primarily concerned with exploitation. After the prologue at the mine, we encounter Ratner walking back from the hospital to his store as he learns that Arno has sent a couple guys to keep an eye on things there and confront him about his debt. They’ve harassed Yussi and ripped his shirt, solely because of Ratner’s problems, and Ratner is scarcely concerned as this presumably stellar employee complains “I’ve given you eight years of my life and this is how you treat me? You’re going to see me out there and you’re not gonna be happy.” Such is the condition of the voyeur, to only be able to have something by seeing it from a distance and thus never really having it, in fact pushing it away with the pathology of the condition. It’s difficult to imagine a more alienating thing to say to someone who has just been assaulted than to ignore his complaint and say about a rare gemstone, “I’m going to cum,” while looking at him with a nonchalant defiance. Later on, he does in fact see Yussi, this time from behind another glass boundary, another person who has contributed to Ratner’s success pushed away because Howard pushes away everything good in pursuit of his own gratifications. The explicit reference to orgasm during a significant act of observation (of the gem) in parallel to a worker-owner rift over violence locates, here as in many other scenes, all of these themes as a unified complex in Ratner’s personality and around which the film is constructed.
One of the regulars we first meet in the store is Demany, whose character is one that, on a first watch, behaves in a manner both infuriating and baffling by design. However, as we learn more about the exploitation themes, his relationship to Howard, Howard’s treatment of people (especially employees), and the impoverished condition of the African Jews on the other side of the world, we can see much of Demany’s behavior in a different light as yet another person who is reaching the point at which he’s not going to put up with Howard’s bullshit any more. It’s important both that Demany has the financial ability to refuse Howard and also that he, even if part jokingly, expresses solidarity with the African Jews. The act will be mirrored by KG in a more direct and serious way later.
Later, when Ratner is berating Demany and bossing him around on the street outside Adley’s auction house, Demany rebuffs him and says “I ain’t no broke nigga.” The context of U.S. race and power dynamics is clear, but after the later context of KG’s comments about exploiting the African Jews, this dynamic between Demany and Ratner is recast in a broader, global light meant to highlight racial solidarity and the ethnic divisions explored in the movie..
Demany has the means to brush Ratner off when it suits him, because he seems to be moderately successful at his own illegitimate luxury goods hustle. He has a nice car in New York, as does Howard’s family out in the suburbs. However, the more vast difference in money and power between Ratner and the miners highlights the nature of exploitation at scales so large they become invisible to consumers at the end of the chain and to people like Howard. When Howard irately tells Demany in a later scene, “You work for me,” it happens so fast and in a now-customary manner that it’s easy to forget about, but it should be pointed out that Demany doesn’t really work for Ratner in the sense that the Howard’s employees do. Demany’s and Howard’s relationship is illicit but much more equal in terms of power, as indicated by the fact that near the end of the film Demany is done with Howard and taking his wares elsewhere. Demany is another case where we can infer that he has done a lot for Howard’s business that Howard has failed to do directly, because we’ve at least seen Demany bring in high-paying customers and we haven’t seen Howard make a sale or do anything similarly substantial until he finally manages to unload the opal at a fraction of the price he’d long expected in the final act. Ratner telling Demany that Demany works for him is part of Ratner’s pattern of delusion and (attempts at) exploitation.
In addition to the incidents with Yussi and Demany, we must also consider that Ratner is having a sexual relationship with an employee (while he himself is still married), which is also inherently exploitative. In their first scene together, Ratner yells that she is taking advantage of him by using his apartment for parties and the like, even as he is about to surreptitiously pawn an expensive jewelry item from the photo shoot she has just done, exploiting her proximity to celebrity in a pattern that will soon repeat. Later on, after Ratner interrupts Julia and The Weeknd in the club bathroom purportedly engaged in sexual activity, they argue and she tells him “you knew what this was when it started,” which strongly implies that they were both using one another for their own selfish ends. Nevertheless, Ratner has the power in the relationship. He has the apartment and pays her wages. He cruelly points out that she doesn’t have a family even as he destroys his own, and he has no qualms about putting her out on the street.
Like many such cases, a small part of him is aware of how he treats others because he is pathologically concerned about them treating him in the exact same way. After the argument outside the club, when Julia later pleads with him and tells him that she loves him, he pointedly does not return the declaration. Only later when he wins big in the Celtics game of the climactic act–an event very strongly correlated all along to Ratner’s sexual gratification and emotional euphoria, the fairy tale connotation of which is underscored by the dreamlike synthesizers of the score–does he say that he loves her, making it ring hollow. The film pumps up this moment of elation to consciously manipulate the audience for the violence that immediately follows, but it’s also making a rather clear comment on the unrealistic nature of many films that turn on a story structure of overcoming adversity in the context of something like sports. What matters is who has the guns and money, not who won the game or who the crowd rooted for.
This is another of the many painful reminders of the audience’s role in all this. Despite all we know about Howard–his treatment of others, his ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and the fact that he places his family in mortal danger–we’re still rooting for him, still thinking because of how we’ve been conditioned by media cues the film consciously parodies that somehow he’s going to pull through and come out of this mess. The Safdies take great care to show that even Arno has been taken in by the savvy bet and the streak that Ratner has put together, but like us he is a fool to do so, and it costs him dearly. As the bet pays off and Howard finally returns Julia’s declaration of love over the phone, the dreamy, euphoric synth music that has primarily been used to indicate a shift between layers of the movie’s reality has started up and has the effect of distancing the viewer from the scene, making us wonder what the hell is next. A happy resolution feels incongruous, but that’s where we’ve been led. The dialogue is a bit muffled and takes a step back in the mix as though we’re behind a screen. The music carries us through the violence to come and the final cosmic sequence to put the closing touches on the film’s structure, contrasting the glittering interior of the opal now not with Ratner’s colon but with his destroyed brain and bullet fragments.
Ratner’s deluded sense of importance is directly connected to the exploitation themes and rendered most clearly when he boasts about his accomplishments, often in ways that are socially awkward to indicate that something is off with him. When he’s in the office with KG after the gem sale is complete, in addition to how he wins, he takes care to tell KG “I did that for you” as though the gem really does magically affect KG’s basketball performance. All Ratner did was put together a botched deal and move some money. Regardless of luck, KG got where he is by having the necessary skill and working hard, and you can see in his face that what Ratner is saying is, at the least, irking him in this regard. By the end of the film, Phil has observed this aspect of Ratner’s deluded mania in victory, and to encourage Howard to open the door he tells him “You made your mark,” a deliciously cruel remark granted an absurd cosmic significance when seen in the hindsight of what follows right after.
The famous “this is how I win” conversation contains another similarly crucial moment that unites Ratner’s delusional narcissism, the exploitation theme, and a parallel to the parable of the money changers in the Temple when he tells KG, in a moment of absurdity to the audience who has been watching his antics, that he created the value that the opal has for KG.
We can’t be sure if Ratner is trying harder to convince himself or others, as he appears to have a craven need to do both throughout the film. Either way, it is a statement as hollow as so many of the pursuits Ratner has embarked upon and marks another escalation of his delusion, leading up to the big game and biggest bet yet.
Voyeurism & Mediated Dysrealities
“Don’t you wanna see the photos I took?”
The mediated entertainments and cultural fragments that extend to our real world (via the use of real celebrities playing themselves) on which Ratner’s finances and life depend are “real,” but they are not integrated into Ratner’s life healthily. They’re part of his addiction and the rationalizing that occurs. Ratner’s world is fundamentally one experienced via screen, and it’s no coincidence that the opal’s presence is first indicated to us in the primary narrative by being displayed on security monitors through glass security doors and further partitioned off from him by protective packaging and a large fish for added “security.”
In the commotion of the mining injury that has occurred in the prologue, an angry miner points at his own eye and then at an overseer or manager, which the film takes pains to make a different ethnicity from the miners to highlight the racial and ethnic dividing lines that exist in a globally exploitative relationship and which will be reproduced hyperlocally via the exclusion of the African Jews and the solidarity expressed for them in New York by Demany and then KG, first as farce and then as tragedy. In terms of the plot, we’re being told in the prologue that the injury has something to do with the watchfulness or lack thereof of the overseer. Whether it was simply a mistake or something more nefarious is left offscreen, but we can safely assume from the persistent imagery associated with voyeurism to come that one of the things it’s telling the viewer is to pay attention to the use of the gaze within the world of the film and how it is associated with violence and exploitation.
Uncut Gems is a film shot through with fragmented settings that partition characters into different layers of reality of often purposely confused import to both viewer and character, sometimes mediated and sometimes occurring within the same in-camera physical space but with translucent barriers, screens within screens, in-camera screens subdivided into multiple screens, and eyepieces like glasses and loupes. These different layers mimic the mania and delusion of Ratner as he plunges further into the depths of gambling impulses and the panic of eluding the people coming after him. Eventually, Ratner’s reality disastrously collides head-on with that of Arno and crew because he has long since lost his bearings, already having alienated his family and presumably many others, and he seems to think that solving a problem in his world will equate to solving the problems that have split him off from everyone else. He only really talks to his son about sports, gambling, or his proximity to celebrities: nothing of consequence to an adolescent Jewish boy in New York or that surfaces independently of Howard’s problems..
From the beginning, our first image of Ratner is from inside his body. In a remarkably unsubtle transition to present-day New York, the camera takes us from the mystical, glittering tunnel of the opal’s interior to a moment that feels intended to suggest a mine tunnel at a different order of magnitude but is actually the interior of Ratner’s colon. After a short time, the camera pulls back to reveal that although this is the inside of Howard Ratner, it is also a mediated image on a screen existing outside his body in a hospital room. These shifts between layers of reality (Whether intentional or not, the whispers by the miners as the camera tunnels up through the mine shaft into Ratner’s colon even reminiscent of the sounds emanating from beyond the mediating border of the Poltergeist TV) extend the specific situations into which Ratner has gotten himself into a broader set of themes that relate to both voyeurism and exploitation.
Ratner is a voyeur through and through, and this condition strongly links his gambling addiction to sexual gratification and exploitation. This complex of emotions has come to take the place of most everything else. His sexual pursuits (always accompanied by an uncomfortable announcement to another party) though sometimes appearing to have genuine emotion behind them, are always fueled by gambling victories or the gem. We’re first introduced to this in two moments played for uncomfortable comedy, but they escalate from mere statement to public masturbation to offscreen consummation, linked significantly by a series of mediated exchanges by phone screen. It’s crucial to keep in mind at all times the decision to link Ratner’s gambling problems and hustles so deeply to a sport watched by millions on screens all around the country rather than to a game in which he’s a direct participant like blackjack, sinking or swimming more or less on his own ability rather than that of a black person’s body contracted to a sports team owner. Ratner’s neither a lottery player nor a BINGO fan. He doesn’t put money on horse races, another activity where the event is secondary like basketball but which has nowhere near the viewership or celebrity culture. The outcomes must be vicarious even as they bring satisfaction or loss, linked along a chain like the relationships of exploitation explored. His sense of thrill, risk, and “fulfillment” cannot be separated from the act of viewing from a distance a third party event that has nothing to do with him, his family, or anything that would be considered a healthy life pursuit, even as he tries to enmesh himself in that celebrity culture at the local level in moments both serious and petty, the latter occurring when he boasts angrily that he knows all the local DJs and he’s going to get them to drop The Weeknd’s music from their playlist.
It isn’t surprising then that Julia, Howard’s girlfriend, is an aspiring photographer, and in their first onscreen interaction they discuss a photo shoot she has recently done with The Weeknd. Julia’s photography skills next come into play when Ratner, elated and aroused from a big win, is surreptitiously observing her from the closet as she texts him lingerie photos under a false pretext, creating a circular chain of distanced observation that will recur in the climactic scenes with visibly-consummated violence substituted for the never-visibly-consummated sex of the film. This basic doubling-back of observational relationships resurfaces in the scene with Ratner texting Arno a picture of money while Arno is on the phone with his enforcers, who are themselves observing Ratner texting Arno. These hyperlocalized chains of voyeurism, violence, and exploitation (a loanshark and his debtor is an inherently exploitative relationship) mimic the global chain of voyeurism, violence, and exploitation drawn by the path from Ratner’s TV to phone to Ethiopia and back to his New York jewelry store, only with a different power dynamic (nonetheless both backed by violence and capital). Even as Howard routinely exploits, he is constantly in the position of being exploited by others observing him negotiating what we might as well think of as this seemingly bourgeois contradiction. Exploitation (and the pointed resistance to it we see in small moments) would seem the only kind of relationship that exists in Howard’s world, though there are glimpses of the worlds of which he used to be a part where this is not so.
“Don’t you wanna see the photos I took?” Julia asks. This is another line that is easy to overlook but which has substantial bearing on a number of these themes. Julia has sold a photo shoot for $3,500, in contrast to Howard who is only ever losing money while thinking he’s making some. This is a recurring pattern as he constantly boasts of what he has done for people or dues he has paid in direct contradiction to everything we’ve seen and come to understand about his character. Yussi and Demany are shown doing more to make money for his store than Howard is. He may have legitimately provided his bling owl dolls to a music production(s) a long time ago, but we have every reason to think he’s exaggerating or otherwise bullshitting. When he talks about to KG about the dues he has paid, it comes across as an absurdity being presented to an athlete who worked hard to get where he is and is shown repeatedly earning his own success during the in-movie basketball games. Regardless of his wealth, KG is a worker, not an owner.
The photos with real-world celebrity The Weeknd, played in the movie by real-world celebrity The Weeknd, are presented to Ratner and the viewer not so much to draw us into the world of the movie but to extend the movie out into ours. This a major structural component of the movie rather than mere flair or wink-and-nod allusive metafiction. The film would not work half as well if it did not use real world basketball teams as a vector for gambling addiction, exploitation, and the seduction of a life lived well only when done through observation but a fuck-up, to use the parlance of the movie, at real interpersonal relationships among many other things. Blissfully unaware of the toxic ways he’s influencing his son while finding ways to selfishly validate his status as a father, he’s undoubtedly fucking up a few more things for his kids on his way out the door.
The thematic links between exploitation and voyeurism are numerous, as are the ways we’re encouraged to consider them both within the movie and extended into our own reality as viewers. Athletes, rich as they might be in famous cases, have long been a site of struggle between owner and contracted worker, often a person with a body that renders them second-class citizens: celebritydom hasn’t spared countless black celebs from police beatings, insults, unfair wages, and more. Owners profit off of their labor, even as Ratner seeks to enrich himself by gambling on their every single game metric. As he’s enraptured in the final act and watching KG’s stellar performance that’s winning big, the thematic link between black laborer and white passive income earner couldn’t be clearer. Indeed the film makes sure to further explore this particular pathology in the unsettling scene in which he sexts Julia–lying to her for his own ends in a way that should be read as exploitative even if later turned flirtatious, particularly when adding the additional context of being her boss.
Voyeurism and significant acts of observation don’t just show up in these places though. The audience is constantly reminded of eyes and their fragility in other contexts as well. When Ratner finally takes an injury from the loanshark crew at a water fountain, he seems concerned about his glasses that got knocked off at least as much as any injury he has taken, and it’s not the first time he has explicitly worried about them. The entire cast is stuck in a chain of voyeurism, with enforcers spying on him, Ratner watching everyone in his store on cameras, Ratner obsessively watching the games he bets on and with a particular fixation on KG, and most notably in the conclusion as the enforcers are locked in the waiting area behind bulletproof glass where all they can do is watch Ratner watching KG and all we can do is watch all their expressions. It is no coincidence where on his body Ratner gets fatally shot at the end, the circular bullet hole just beneath the eye, blood leaking up to it, creating a cruel parody of the basket KG landed to clinch the last part of the bet before ultimate victory just moments earlier on TV (“Shoot! Shoot Shoot!…Shoot that shit!…Shoot it, shoot it!” Ratner has been shouting, before kissing the screen).
The relationship Ratner initiates with the black Jewish miners after seeing them from halfway around the world in TV footage, and we’re reminded of this fact again when he replays some of the footage on his phone for KG.
There is always a localized impact from the black opal even as the connections are global, and we can’t forget that this is very much a movie concerned with the ways the local creates insularity that is harmful and, appropriately enough, blinding. The winning, hyperlocalized to the TV-created reality, is only meant to be thought of in terms of the game, the work of other people: not the betting, because the game required work and the betting was an attempt to extract a profit from it. The film contrasts Howard’s loss of life with KG’s victory speech quite unsubtly.
It’s important to mark how over Howard’s head the talk of exploitation from KG is. It’s not exploitation, it’s how *I* win. Even as Ratner is now experiencing injury himself at the hands of the more powerful (violence which is carefully withheld for an astonishingly long time given the tension and suspense of the movie), he cannot make the connections between a white man in the U.S. ringing up black miners to rip off and from whom to extract resources intended for the investor class in a country halfway around the world. Perhaps, in the film’s commodity cosmicism, Howard’s end is actually that class’s enactment of justice. The global chain leaves its marks of violence on both locales as the camera pulls back from Ratner’s corpse and the destruction of his store, set up in clear parallel to the violence and destruction of the mining and gemstone industry that opened the movie. They made sure to tell us, using Ratner’s colon, that this was always going to shit.
One of the most unsettling and important scenes in the film occurs when Ratner has Arno and crew locked behind the glass security door. They’re watching him watching KG as he descends into a maniacal glee when his bets start to pay off. He knows they’re a threat but has partitioned himself off into his own reality in every sense.
All of this visual mediation and the voyeurism/adjacent relationships highlight the fact that we’re now rooting for this man against the odds and in direct contradiction to what the movie’s prologue told us was going to happen when it created an immutable link between resource extraction and violence by way of black people’s bodies. It contradicts what we were told when, in the first half hour, Phil told Howard he’s a dead man (did you fall into the trap of letting yourself forget that during the big game too?). We’re induced to realize that the game Ratner is watching is a “real” team with “real” players and we’re watching a man we all know is Adam Sandler playing a character whose fate has already been ordained by the script, but we cheer on team and gambler alike as though it all hinges on the dynamics of a real sporting event. The scripted “randomness” and excitement of the basketball game is as seductive to us and our desire to root for the main character (a lot to unpack there too) as the high stakes gambling, jewelry, and glitzy celebsports worlds are to him. Multiple times the thought crossed my mind that it doesn’t feel quite right to root for the gambling addict who pathologically uses people to “win,” even if sympathizing with the addiction component,, but therein is the brilliance of the movie. We feel swept along in all these matters as though they’re important in some way, and part of us needs it to be, but ultimately Ratner is revealed to be as important to people with real power as the exploited miners were to Ratner and their overseer, both of whose entire trade is built on extracting and artificially driving up demand and value in ways not dissimilar to the stunt Ratner tries to pull in the auction room by getting Gooey to inflate the bidding on the opal. The value of it all is backed by nothing but deceit, chance, invisible un/der/compensated labor, and violence. We watch the artificiality of how value is created in New York and are pushed to extrapolate that globally with all these connective media to take us there.
Ratner, in this climactic scene with the final game–thinking that his bets are all going to pay off and fix his problems after he locked a visibly murderous gangster behind bulletproof glass–is seduced by the idea of a happy ending just like we are, but when Phil is released and promptly shoots Ratner in the face, it is exactly what we expect and at the same time it feels like a remarkably brutal shock because the movie has been relatively restrained in its portrayal of serious violence. The only other serious violence up to this point was in the prologue depicting the miner injury, linked to Ratner via the tunnels of gem and colon that significantly form the relationship between hyperlocal and global. All the other violent incidents he faces are presented as easily survivable (even if a sharp shot to the throat could kill someone in some cases, we’re never made to think that’s a serious possibility when it happens in the movie: just a little something to shut him up with the fast-talking excuses).
The fracturing that has occurred within Ratner’s family life as a direct result of his pathological, voyeurist/exploitative behaviors is given greater depth by its extension into the camera techniques used to elicit so much distress from the viewer. In-camera images on cameras are shown as split multi-monitor grids, layers of security glass partition characters physically and mimic the effect of being captured onscreen for observation, unable to be touched. The editing moves frenetically among these images in a manner meant to disrupt the sense of place and proximity, even as it is the act of distancing that substantially characterizes the voyeurist’s processes of self-gratification. We are being forced by the camera to participate at times in these acts of observation, but we’re also forced to find it disorienting, compulsive by suggestion but not pleasurable as it is to Ratner. The effect seems akin to being simultaneously seduced while repulsed and forced to adopt a confused or fragmented subject-object relationship with all the layers of screens and realities the camera moves into and back out of.
Even as The Weeknd and KG drift among “our” “reality,” the primary surface/narrative reality of Uncut Gems, and the doubly mediated in-movie onscreen reality of KG’s televised basketball games and The Weeknd’s photo shoot, we’re prompted to contemplate our own relationships to each of those realities and extrapolate that logic further out into other layers and fragmented portions of our reality. The distancing effects produced by the camera techniques and voyeurism themes are similarly built from a temporal perspective as we’re being consciously presented with an early 2010s period film in the year 2019. It’s all recognizable to the real-world viewer but slightly alien, just distant enough to feel more like observer than participant in its “at-the-time-it-was-up-to-the-minute” gestures to real life and culture. Even the real-life Mohegan Sun exists in multiple layers of the film’s reality, appearing diegetically on a TV commercial before later being the site of the most crucial bet of the movie.
In the jewelry bazaar, we watch from overhead as Ratner enters, all the humans shrunk by an order of magnitude by comparison to their usual proportion to the frame and appearing under lighting fixtures that create an effect similar to observing this sequence from beneath a display case on a higher level of reality. The slow zoom shot signaling a shift in perspective endures 18 seconds, an excruciatingly long cut in the context of the primary narrative’s editing and sustained in a way mostly seen only during other intercalary cosmic sequences elsewhere that are used to shift which layer of reality we’re on. The negotiation dialogue among Ratner, Bronstein, and the other shop worker lingers but fades into the distance as the dreamy synth takes over the mix. We see from a distance and through layers of glass Phil and Nico talking animatedly, likely arguing silently.
During this slow drift forward, there is a sense of floating free of any human perspective combined with the suggestion of a slow and inexorable otherworldly threat moving through a liminal field mediating between protagonist and antagonist, predator and prey, subject and object: We slowly press up to the glass door and storefront. We can’t hear Phil and Nico on the other side, and just as the camera breaks through the boundary of the store we suddenly find ourselves cutting to an up-close shot through a windshield of them in a car observing and discussing him. We’ve just been shuffled around in a quick sleight of hand easy to miss but granted a great deal of significance in the context of the voyuerism, distancing, and mediating methods used by the camera throughout to, at times, implicate the viewer as a participant in troubling ways that blur with the slice-of-reality use of real-life celebrities and in-movie TV screens.
One of the only (if not *the* only) other times the camera operates in this manner in the primary narrative is noteworthy because it even further implicates the viewer in the voyeurism/mediation/exploitation/gambling complex centralized in the film. After the voyueristic foreplay that occurred between Ratner in his closet sexting and spying on Julia, he rushes from the closet and they finally become physically close for a moment. Quick explanations and brief outrage aside, they start to move beyond mere foreplay as she’s still wearing her green lingerie to physical consummation. Crucially, the camera pulls back through the glass apartment windows, to the outside, now distant, removed by an order of magnitude and from a third-person, suggestively omniscient view meant to tie the real-life audience at home to the voyeurist tendencies internal to the film. This isn’t a broken fourth wall, but we’ve certainly been brought to it and nudged to look over. It’s as if we’re looking into an aquarium. We faintly see Ratner move out of view, seeming to sink to the couch, and we can see a tiny Julia apparently climbing onto him, but the specifics have become vague, blurred. The viewer remains suspended in that precarious moment and then we’re on to the next scene. One might even be a little surprised a giant Demany doesn’t cross our view to dump a toxic substance the color of blood into the tank to ruin the evening.
Uncut Gems is talked about as a very “New York” movie, and it is, but it also isn’t, at least not to the extent one might feel after a recent viewing. The movie isn’t really localized to “New York;” it’s hyperlocalized to crowded rooms and portions of sidewalk, captured on in-movie screens, and it’s partly accomplished by building on these themes of mediation and partition. It’s not “New York;” it’s a tiny part of New York made to feel insular with cramped camera conditions so that it’s its own universe and we’re forced to consider what makes up a community or family while simultaneously creating the necessary ignorances that link American consumption to extractive industries halfway around the globe. Howard doesn’t experience a local community, he experiences delusions of community, slices of celebrity, because that’s what he pathologically prefers. When he and Demany go to Philadelphia, they’re only shown inside the practice facility and garage. When Julia goes to the Mohegan Sun, she’s shown inside the helicopter, iinside the venue, or leaving inside a car. Not much that happens outside the Diamond District matters, and it only matters to the degree that it affects things in the District. We see basically nothing outside of New York, and we see only a relatively tiny slice of New York itself. Everything that matters to the events in New York can ultimately be traced by video to events outside the city (recall that it was television that originated all of this for Ratner, chronologically)..
An interesting link between the hyperlocal and global established via image and suggested absence of image lies in the dirty water used to provide relief to the injured miner in the prologue and the running joke in which Ratner pushes water on his customers to impress them and they always refuse. For him, the water is transactional for his own selfish ends, not a gesture of genuine help, and we never see it in the camera’s focus like we do the dirty water bottle being used to help the injured miner. It’s also a status indicator in his neighborhood, as he is the first store to be able to offer it, a fact of which he proudly boasts. Water in the Diamond District is always presented as a presumed but rejected want being hyped up to a potential customer, not a need, in contrast to the scene at the Welo Mine. Similarly, the real value of the opal is from the miner’s labor, while Howard’s relationship to it is in artificially inflating its value far from its source. It’s emphasized as a rarity in the neighborhood, and we’re left to reconsider that notion of ostensible precarity in the Ethiopian context and resource extraction by global interests.
During the big game at the climax, we want to root for Howard even as we’re disturbed and nervous about how it’s all going to come together. Uncut Gems does not break the fourth wall as in the film Funny Games, but the amalgam of techniques used in pursuit of the voyeurism and exploitation themes and the overall suspenseful pacing creates an eerily similar effect. It is deeply uncomfortable to watch the camera’s view tilt up at the reflective ceiling as Ratner’s body drops to the ground, as though the camera is a dying body mimicking his, all the more so since we’ve been crammed into the tight jewelry shop with all these loathsome people. We’ve been relating to him to a degree emotionally as he wins and now we must relate to his dead body as we look through a camera simulating the view of a sudden dead drop. It feels further unnerving to then get a shot from as far back as the space will allow as the enforcers loot the shop. Then the camera again hammers home the viewer’s participation when, paralleling the opening approach to the mine and injury, it zooms uncomfortably in on Ratner’s face wound from overhead and tunnels into him, again shifting to another ontological layer by crossing a mediating boundary tied to vision. The hyperlocalized wound scales to the camera and becomes global (not coincidentally, circular in shape), chemical, spiritual, universalized and anonymized, cosmic and infinitessimal to stand for the broader glittering hollowness of Ratner’s personal pursuits and their global structural foundations, ending in a darkness that fills our screen. The darkness inside Ratner’s brain flattens all these realities into the same one on our own monitor because so many of these screens he’s observed have been forced to encompass our own entire view for brief moments..
When Phil starts destroying the shop, one of the strangest things is how unsettling it is to witness the glass breaking and be startled by its senseless chaotic sound among all the fragility of a jewelry store. Doubling the persistent image of mediating screens in the televisual moments construct the film’s voyeurism/exploitation complex, these too are transparent fragile bits of protection that divide two worlds, a tense relationship doomed to shatter just as Ratner’s plans and life have done, from which the viewer is likely still reeling. We’ve been primed for this confusion of reality layers with the camera’s shifts in perspective that rescale the characters and place us at either a further remove or deeper into the innards of the film’s story’s media. We were already warned once that this kind of discomfort was on the way, though, after hearing Howard’s persistently ignored warnings to KG not to lean on the glass display cases in an early scene, until eventually he breaks one in an act that foreshadows the concluding store destruction (I have no doubt they also would have had KG do a backboard-shattering dunk while on his big streak if it wasn’t such an uncommon occurrence and would break the layers of illusion). In the universe of the movie, shattered glass would indicate victory for KG and therefore Ratner even as the primary tension is in the juxtaposition of KG’s victory and ensuing gambling winnings being laid hollow. This inverse relationship is mirrored in the fact that KG sees the breaking of glass as good luck instead of bad, which fuels his desire for the opal and further sets events in motion that take on an ostensibly cosmic significance. So too is the tension between victory and destruction that exists between those two images of glass and their synthesis into markers of visual mediation and the fleeting, accelerationist nature of the voyuerist’s condition hurtling him toward a destruction of one kind or another.
Amid the destruction of the shop, Howard, his life fragmented by screens and still clutching one in his hand, lingers frozen as a corpse fragmented by them in death, a final still, black/red/blue image in contrast to the hyperreal, vibrant, green and white motion of the life and games on TV. The camera now holds a cold gaze on him, using reflections and awkward perspective to invert the relationship of the body to everything else. His body is visibly blurred by as if being smeared onto a surface to remain forever, reminiscent of his name shown a little while ago as a still-healing tattoo on Julia’s skin.
In these moments, most viewers are probably feeling roughly how Arno does. Sure, this was always a conceivable outcome, but it’s still fucked and now there’s a wild card with a gun and only a few feet of space in which to maneuver. Completely helpless. That we can feel our stunned but not totally undone reaction well represented on Arno’s face is not surprising given that he was gradually buying into Ratner’s delusion and euphoria in victory. He overcame the odds, pulled out all the stops, used all his skill and combined it with just a little luck. Ratner’s an underdog, but how did he go from unlikeable antihero who uses everyone around him to a hero underdog? Partly we just want everything to end peacefully and simply, and Ratner paying off his debt with everyone parting ways would presumably make all parties happy. But that’s not how life goes, and it’s not how the violent world established in the movie was ever going to go. We’ve been primed to identify with Arno in ways both obvious and subtle. Remember those low-angle shots from his point of view? That wasn’t just to make us feel trapped in the foyer at the time. We have more screen time to be afraid on Arno’s behalf than Ratner’s, and that’s by design. Nobody watching this scene could possibly have a solution other than Arno’s, which is just to flail about and plead while being pissed off because this is all supposed to be going the way you wanted it to go. The viewer is all the more unsettled when Phil summarily executes him, spraying blood and brains on the glass display, and the camera takes care to create a visual narrative moving from blood to glass to Phil to TV even in this brief moment.
As the camera alternates briskly among images of glass display cases being broken in the shop (in most cases with a portable mirror), in-TV game footage (KG talking, again, about the dues he’s paid to get here), and the screen-riddled Mohegan Sun–brief, overlapping fragments of the characters’ lives being solely accessible to us through the nexus of Ratner’s gambling problem–the rest of the cast cruelly echoes his frequent empty statements of friendship and belonging that he uses transactionally. They know KG. He’s my boy. My dad sold him a ring. Garnett and the victory onscreen are the primary reality around which everything now revolves, and the camera brings the viewer fully into the TV.
When we get a last direct shot of Ratner’s corpse, still in dark glasses that reflect reflections, one of the final things we hear is a directive, presumably from Phil but distanced and anonymized by the mixing, to smash the cameras in the store. To balance the opening frame of the narrative, the camera again uses Ratner’s body as a tunnel, this time which we enter rather than exit, through the opening of a boundary that killed him rather than the opening that was supposed to kill him. One can’t help but note that the red blood trails upward behind the glasses to his eye. Throughout the movie we’ve gone from his colon to his brain and eye, his body left depleted like an abandoned mine that now sits full of nothing but valueless red opal. The bullet wound fills the screen and the camera enters the cosmic tunnel of his skull just as we entered the opal in the beginning, the bullet fragments and bodily detritus becoming the same glittering gems and suggested stars we met not long ago accompanied by whispered, excited promises that tunneled us from Ethiopia to New York. The viewer is eternally interiorized into an embodied cosmicism that exists only in an instant, a precarity in which a gunshot might kill or a huge bet might pay off. We’ve come so far, seemingly, and like so many of the local excursions the characters take, we end up right back on the same block where we started:
a black screen, a black opal perhaps, a black everything.
Shouldn’t have looked into the light.
Family and Community, Ethnic Divisions and Racial Solidarities
“If you wanna go quickly, do it alone. But if you wanna go far, you do it together. We’re like roaches! You can’t kill us” (Celtics coach in the locker room during the big game)
In the before-times suggested by the movie, Howard has been severing links in the chains of family and ethnicity, and replacing them with those of voyeurism and exploitation, similarly established in both the hyperlocal sense of the Pesach/Passover family dinner at his father-in-laws house and in the frequent references to global Jewish identity connecting events of the story. One of the most readily available links between Passover as a religious holiday and broader cultural touchpoints (and this is a film made of cultural tidbits creating a strange hyperreality) linking Jewish identity to a broader American audience, albeit significantly familiar to many viewers by way of the New Testament, is in the parable of the money changers in the Temple. There are undoubtedly more and deeper links between Jewish communities (most viewers will be familiar with the event through a Christian context) and the events of the story, but this one seems to have been looming in the background all along. Howard doesn’t really accomplish things or work; he tries to artificially create value that he can extract from the bodies of others by hedging bets, dealmaking, bid-inflation (notably, over the objections of a family member), and fast talking, as highlighted by the contrast of kitschy bling used for music videos he is associated with and the real high-quality gems that he’s unable to convert into green money for all his painstaking efforts. He moves cash and commodities around while his employees are back in the store and the family he’s pushed away presumably has their life mostly without him.
When Dinah tells Howard she doesn’t even want to touch him, we can’t help but see it as the other side of the coin the voyeur carries with them. Their marriage has failed, or rather been fucked up by Howard, because, as Dinah bluntly points out, Howard is a fuck-up. Like so many of the other topics about which Howard bullshits, he performs the classic absentee father projected mixture of excessive pride and outreach when it provides an opportunity to boast, teaching his son things but only as they relate to his betting and other pursuits less than admirable for an adolescent to be taught by his father. His daughter has gotten old enough to learn he’s a bullshitter, but Eddie is still in a fair amount of awe of his dad and the proximity to celebrities he has. Howard trades the promise of an autograph to a young relative because it secures Gooey’s help with the bid inflation, but I recall no such invitations extended to his own children.
A sense of belonging seems to be the only thing that Howard wants apart from money, but he has clearly chosen one over the other, even if he doesn’t thoroughly realize it. He has made his family the Diamond District denizens who just register him as another of a thousand neighborhood regulars. Perhaps the only person who expresses “concern” for his wellbeing other than Julia is one of the Bronsteins to whom he goes to swap out NBA rings for the purpose of hedging. The broker goes out of his way to upcharge the interest on the ring because he knows Ratner is in a difficult position (more exploitation) and immediately following it asks, “you okay?” while invoking “bubby” as a term of familiarity. But we can tell the money is far more important and the concern is more conversational than emotional. We have the sense though that Ratner almost believes it because it’s the same language he speaks as a bullshitter.
Howard partitions Jewishness along racial lines rather than ethnoreligious ones, and it is worth noting here that Jewish identity in the United States is often seen as a crucible for the malleability of whiteness, being racialized as white in some circumstances and at others being thoroughly viewed as an Other to be reviled and excluded, primarily depending on which is more expedient for the foundational white supremacy of U.S. society. This is a case of creating a division within Jewish identity where one might not expect in the trajectory of the film (though there is plenty of historical discussion of this topic as it manifests in the real world), and–in a pointed use of irony that contrasts Howard’s inability to feel solidarity for African Jews–he can’t understand why Arno, as a family member, won’t talk to him about his debt. But great pains are taken to point out that the family relation is by marriage, not blood (note: details are sparse in the film to keep it a provocative plot point, but I have proceeded on the belief that Arno is Dinah’s sister’s husband. I could be wrong on that detail, but if so I don’t believe it would significantly change the basic point here).
Howard’s need for belonging and its relationship in the movie to voyeurism and exploitation becomes menacing and explicit when he begins to conflate his own misadventures with KG’s real skills on the basketball court. Throughout the film, Howard constantly presumes to tell people what they’re going to do for him, and they almost always completely disregard him. However, after he sells the opal to KG and puts together his bet, he begins to issue directives to KG about how he’s going to perform inthe game and then begins to refer to them as a “we,” insisting that “we’re a team tonight” and “this is gonna be one of the best nights of our fucking lives.” Finally, we’re soon to find out, someone does what Howard says, but there is no causal relationship because we’ve come to understand that KG has some legitimate skill and that there may be an extra cosmic boost from the opal. This nuance doesn’t penetrate Howard’s self-conception as he spirals into a manic delusion fueled by his gambling addiction. Regarding exploitation, it’s important to note again that Howard has just been talking to KG about detailed stats pertaining to his basketball performance in a deeply uncomfortable and insulting manner as though KG is a commodity with attributes that will bring Ratner money, but, as always, nothing about this registers to himself as wrong. The look of discomfort and confusion on KG’s face is one we’re clearly meant to mirror, involving us further in the sense of dysreality as we consider that this is a real basketball player commenting on a real global issue that at times does mirror the same lines of division and solidarity.
Not only has Howard driven away his wife but more provocative is the revelation midway through the movie that Arno, the loanshark to whom he’s indebted, is in fact part of Howard’s family. The chain lengthens by another link as we realize that Howard is being exploited by Arno, as is inherently the case in a relationship between a loanshark with violent goons and a man in his debt. Family is not the saving element of the film. In fact what makes the film most uncomfortable is in showing how artificial the rules of family are. Even as one would expect Arno not to harm Howard because he’s a family member, one is similarly shocked to see Ratner’s indifference as he’s told that he himself has exploited Jews on the other side of the globe while frequently invoking his Jewishness to create community locally.
The African Jews are partitioned off from Ratner’s Jewishness because they’re black Jews, not just because they happen to be in Africa, and the pattern of solidarity from significant black characters in the film stands in purposeful contrast to Ratner’s attitude toward them. The sense of dysreality is escalated as we uncomfortably recall that Adam Sandler himself has made news headlines for racist comments. We get the sense that both Ratner and Sandler would dismiss such charges and direct us to the black friends they undoubtedly have. But Ratner doesn’t really seem to have friends, even if he thinks of some people as such. Divisions within family are foregrounded just like the division within Jewishness used in the film, contrasting with the non-familial expressions of global racial solidarity. The film makes sure to point out that Arno is related to Ratner by marriage, not “blood.” As Ratner walks over to his father-in-laws for a family dinner, he has a passing exchange with a man named Larry about Pesach, at which point Ratner welcomes him back to Jewishness. This comradely gesture stands in stark contrast to the fact that through his own willful actions, Arno will not speak to him and Dinah will not touch him: severed familial links in more than one sense of the word. More partitions.
Howard doesn’t belong in the world of his family, but he also doesn’t belong in the world that he has chosen as his replacement family. He doesn’t seem to belong very well to Jewishness, using it more for shallow significations and jokes rather than participating very seriously in the family Passover meal, providing a mildly parodic English echo of his mother’s Hebrew reading. He is never in his element, never a step ahead as he thinks, and seems to fall into the trap of using people while thinking they’re not using him right back. It’s revealed clearly that Ratner has chosen way too many times to value his own hustles and bets over his family, compounded by the fact that he’s living with a girlfriend he employs: a relationship begun with the two using each other.
In the first conversation between Howard and Julia, the main topics are: family and a photo shoot, further linking the distancing of voyeurism with the lost intimacy of a lost family. This distance is not just emotional but physical, as Howard takes pains to remind Julia he has been sleeping on a floor. The film takes care to show Julia showing Howard and us a photo shoot on her camera during this same conversation. Ratner’s relationship with his wife is past the point of recovery, and the movie wisely chooses to show us that Dinah has long been used to Howard trying to lay on the charm, come clean, turn over a new leaf, etc. She is way past that point, and while the film steadfastly refuses to have Howard learn a lesson at any opportunity, it curiously revolves around a majority of the other characters reaching some kind of significant change in response to Howard: Julia seems to truly love him and I was inclined to believe her as much as I was disinclined to believe his same declaration. Phil is prompted to exert power and violently overthrow the employer/worker relationship that brought him into all this. Arno is revealed to be less a threat and more of a pathetic hanger-on dependent on Phil and Nico more than the inverse. Kevin Garnett is a celebrated champion after his performance has been questioned throughout. Demany is finally in a good mood. This isn’t a story about the main character’s transformation but about the deeply harmful transformations caused by his behavior toward others, ultimately resulting directly in his own demise. Now that Julia has realized she loves him, what’s she left with?
Closing the Deal
I think the real substance and “message” of the movie (I reject the idea that movies have to have a message, but I think it’s useful to ask what it might be if we had to try to arrive at one by way of a conclusion), is what it tells the audience about violence and the relationships that condition it. We’re watching an R-rated crime movie that has told us in myriad ways that individual violence is waiting in the wings for Ratner and yet it is a profound shock that it happens exactly when it had seemingly always been ordained to happen. The threat has come to feel invisible by the climax as a result of the ways we’ve been conditioned through media to expect and respond to violence we witness, and I think that tension between obvious, commonly understood aspects of exploitative violence and the systems put in place by capital and government at both global and local scales to render these things as invisible as is necessary for their continued operation and profitability.
These relationships are both readily obvious and frustratingly buried, and the maintenance of it is necessary to the social order as we know it, even as we’ve just watched Phil thoroughly disrupt the known power relationships of the movie, only to presumably begin reproducing them locallyin that very moment and in the few seconds we know of the remainder of his fictitious life. Who knows who should be credited with creating the value of Howard’s store? It certainly wasn’t Phil or Nico, who will be taking much of the value with them. Surely some of it was Ratner, but that’s presumed to be primarily in the past. Mostly we’ve only seen his employees helping him bring in legitimate money as he spirals.
Why is it shocking, what Phil does in these final moments? At no point onscreen does Arno seem intimidating, and Eric Bogosian knows quite well how to be menacing if he wants to be. Any threat posed by Arno throughout the movie is generally vicarious and proceeds from his distanced direction, often by phone, through to execution by Phil, who we have no trouble believing is capable of…really anything. Can you name something you can’t picture him doing if he saw the need? His is truly one of the most unsettling and menacing character creations I’ve seen onscreen, and there’s really nothing remarkable about him as a character. Our expectations have been successfully manipulated is all, steadfastly refusing to use red herrings in the script but employing all kinds of them in the form of former narratives most of us have been exposed to for a long time. Uncut Gems just leads us to a place that’s a little more honest about them, and the truth does usually hurt.
Text © Christopher Burke, 2021. Images © Uncut Gems 2019.