This Is How I Win: The Cosmic Humanism of Uncut Gems

Adam Sandler in Uncut Gems | art by Brianna Ashby
illustration by Brianna Ashby

“When you’re working with gemstones, especially when you’re working with rough gemstones that need to be cut, that requires some considerable expertise to really put a valuation on the piece. You don’t know what’s going to happen when you cut a gemstone.”

—Doug Hucker, CEO, American Gem Trade Association

Don’t make the mistake of looking at an uncut gem. You have to see inside them to experience the wonders they contain.

Here, take this uncut black opal. Hold it in your hand, feel the cold heft of it. And take this loupe—look through it, closely now. Look past the cragged, slabstone husk that’s yet to be cut, yet to prove itself…but be aware, this part is always a gamble—you’re trying to find value where it isn’t obvious, your eye searching past the flaws to find, quite simply, the potential for potential. Without being cut, the value of any gem isn’t obvious, the potential unseen to the untrained eye—you could just as easily be holding an unsellable strop as you could a million-dollar fir-kantike eyer. To bet on an uncut gem, to assume worth from its primeval asymmetry, is to risk sacrificing all that you’ve laid down for it. You must look inside, search beyond the flaws, and hope to find the beauty that possibly novas beneath the surface.

Ahhhhh. There. You see it, don’t you? Knew you would, if you took the time. Deep in the dark windows of the opal’s pinfire iridescence, you see it: The mesmeric reservoir of kaleidoscopic color, the pearly, beetlebacked glimmer—the limitless value, all roiling within, absolutely desperate to be witnessed. And only because you looked inside, past its roughened exterior, do you see its beauty.

It’s said you can see the history of the entire universe within a black opal because they’re so dinosaur-ancient, and because they contain every color spectrum available to the naked eye. Look into the exposed opal within this rock, into its little onyx windows—they’re like tunnels, same as the never-ending tunnels from which the opal itself was unearthed. And in this opal’s tunnels you can see a whole universe, an entire history of time etched in a furious nebulae of color. And with the right kind of eyes—eyes that are very, very rare, mind you—some can even see within this opal the future to come. See the potential. Those most special of eyes can trace the path of the past, the path of those tunnels, and see where they invariably lead. Like a story—if you know enough of what’s come before, you can predict the outcome. Here, follow the tunnels that wormhole within this opal’s hypnotic microcosmos—follow the story they tell:

See a people centuries ago, crossing a desert—Israelites, led by Moses, fleeing lives of slavery in Egypt. See these chosen people escape the cruel will of the Egyptian Pharaoh. See the Egyptians smote by 10 devastating plagues sent by Yahweh, plagues which allowed His chosen people to escape, plagues remembered to this day by the chosen, who spill wine ten times during the Passover Seder to recognize the sacrifice of plague-ridden Egyptians that was required for their Israeli ancestor’s liberation, for their story to continue. 

See these chosen people once again crossing a great distance, centuries later—thousands of Orthodox Jews, many in the diamond business in cities like Antwerp and Amsterdam, fleeing Europe as the jackbooted Nazi atrocity exhibition razorwired their continent. See these people find haven on the other side of the world, along New York City’s 47th street, as so many sacrificed their former lives and homes to create a new story for themselves in what would become known as NYC’s Diamond District, the capital city of the planet’s diamond trade.

See from that same city, just a few years later, 1946, a son of Jewish immigrants named Ossie Schectman. See him sacrifice so much of his body and health to train, to play a game—basketball. See him and his New York Knicks travel to another city, Toronto, where they play the first-ever NBA game. See Ossie, after all of his hard work, after all the dues he’s paid, the Maple Leaf Gardens audience booing him…and watch him score the first two NBA points ever, in a game won by his Knicks…by two points. See how he risks. See how he wins.

See a half-century later, the Welo mines of Ethiopia, where Ethiopian Jews work long and brutalboned  hours for little pay by a Chinese mining company in search of red opals. See how their lives and health are sacrificed to unearth these stones. See the legburst of bone through skin as one miner’s shin explodes in a mining accident, and his fellow miners gather to bring him to the surface, and to riot against management. And look here—see two of those miners calmly assess the situation like bettors reading stats in a game of chance, see their eyes working as they watch the odds change during the riot, and see as they make their gamble, running back into the mines during this opportunistic chaos to secretly excavate what they know hides deep within the walls—a precious black opal they’ve been paid to steal.

See 17 months later, NYC’s Diamond District again. See past the wail of traffic, the percussive free jazz  skronk of horns and voices and music and footclaps, the light jewelshimmer of water on asphalt. See past the greylight sun bouncing off drab colorless buildings, and look within their windows. See past the cold dullbricked surface of a building, into its window, and find an explosion of color, of mauve walls and blue neon lights and chrome fixtures. See a desk with two men on either side, and an uncut black opal—this opal, the very opal you’re staring into—between them. One man is impossibly tall, a basketball player whose very name is that of a gemstone, here to purchase the opal. The other man is far less impressive, an unimposing Jew, a stoneseller seemingly so unremarkable that he must coat himself in Cartier and Gucci, in large capped teeth haloed with a fastidiously manicured goatee. 

But see his eyes.

His eyes dart, frenzied and hungry, from stone to stonebuyer. See his eyes move to the security camera feed that shows the man to whom he owes $100,000 standing outside his entrance with two armed collectors, here to give him his last chance to pay up. See his eyes move to the bag of $165,000 brought to him for the opal. See him sensing lines of force coalescing around this moment, lines only he can see, tracing them to an ending only he can predict. See him disregard the betting odds against this ballplayer and his game tonight, and see him reveal what makes him so special—with this stone, he is crafting his own story, one of risk and sacrifice, one in which he can drive the ballplayer to beat the stats and surprise everyone. He senses how he can shape this day and tonight’s game, and thus his life, by making this story real. He crafts a story that is not just the ballplayer’s, but his own, one that comes from the universe of pain and sacrifice and ecstasy and hope within him. His eyes and glasses aglow with coruscating light reflected from the opal, we see what burns within him as he lays it out for the ballplayer, how they are driven by the same power, only his sheer potential and limitless value is all hidden on the inside, while the ballplayer’s is on display for all to see:

I see you out there when the fuckin stadium’s all booing you, you’re 30 up and you’re still going full tilt! I see you! Let’s see what Vegas, what does Vegas got you guys at tonight? Let’s see. Look at this shit: The Sixers are supposed to win the game tonight, they think. They think on Game 7 you’re not gonna get fuckin 18 points? They don’t think you’re gonna get eight rebounds? What the fuck do they do? Doesn’t that make you wanna fuckin kill them? Doesn’t that want to make you say “fuck you for doubting me?”…Come on, KG. This is no different than that. This is me, alright? I’m not a fuckin athlete. This is my fuckin way. This is how I win. All right? All the fuckin hard work I do? All the fuckin ass-kicking and the dues I pay? You’re not gonna score on the big one on Game 7? Fuck these people, right? That’s how you feel, I know you do. So look:

Let’s fuckin bet on this.

Don’t make the mistake of looking at Uncut Gems. You have to see inside it to experience the wonders it contains.

~ ~ ~

With a froth of supercharged critical verbiage comparing the film to a skullrattling cokesnort of sinuous synth throbs, shocking violence, and nervebursting NYC atmosphere and stress, Uncut Gems could easily be seen as just a dazzlingly fleet thriller, all sweat-stained and tooth-ground anxiety within a noose-tight plot and jeweled with black humor and bizarre pop cultural obsessions…all of which it is, on the surface. Yet, look past that surface of throbbing, borderline synesthetic overload of herky-jerked Diamond District crime drama, and one will find a clockwork and touching meticulousness, in which the directors Safdie (brothers Josh and Benny, who co-wrote and co-edited the film with Ronald Bronstein) offer an at times ecstatic, at times tragic depiction of a deeply-flawed dreamer, of Jewish identity, and the risks and sacrifices taken by both to reveal their beauty and achieve grace. It’s a film about the hidden value that aches within us, unrecognized beneath our array of flaws, beauty that requires true understanding—acceptance, even—to be seen.

Uncut Gems is itself an uncut gem—jagged and terrifying on the outside, yet encompassing a startlingly beautiful and cosmic humanism within—that is also about a living, breathing uncut gem of a man.

His name is Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler, in a performance that mélanges the extremes of his comedic and dramatic work into a singular, prismic effort without which the film simply would not work), owner of KMH Gems and Jewelry. Described variously as “just a fuckin crazy-ass Jew” by Demany (Lakeith Stanfield), who brings him clients from the rap and sports world, and “the most annoying person I have ever met” by Dinah (Idina Menzel), his estranged wife and mother of his three children, Howard is a sad joke to most who know him. Demany sees him as a pompous and pushy Jewish caricature. Dinah sees him as a degenerate gambling junkie driven by the pursuit of selfish desire, be it his constant gambling or his ongoing affair with his much younger coworker, Julia (the hypnotically endearing Julia Fox), constantly risking his family’s financial and emotional security on an increasingly outsized series of sporting bets with money he doesn’t have. And so many others—like Arno (Eric Bogosian), the furious, violently exasperated brother-in-law to whom Howard owes the $100,000—see him as a worthless loser who refuses to pay the myriad of debts that flood his daily life the same way endorphins flood his nervous system when he senses a sure thing and has to bet on it.

Howard Ratner is an asshole.

But he is also an understandable one (indeed, his story begins with a colonoscopy, as a physician literally studies the inside of Howard’s ass). Watch Howard closely enough, and you see a man driven by more than a simplistically selfish drive to score, to feel the juice of a high-dollar hit. For Howard, to gamble is to trace all the elements of the past, follow all the pieces which have led to and converged upon this very moment, and sense their potential. That is what makes him more than just a 47th Street joke—his ability to recognize the potential in any given situation the way he desperately wishes others could recognize his own, and to predict what that potential could lead to. Betting allows him to become the author of this story by predicting and determining its ending—for so long, the story of Howard and his people has been one of abuse, subjugation, disrespect.  To be able to predict the ending—how many points, how many rebounds, the final point spread in a game of chance—and to profit from that, and then use those profits to will even greater events of chance into his path, is to play god. And to be a god, he must be willing to risk and sacrifice all to prove to the world that spits in his face and the face of his people that he is a fucking gem that contains all the universe’s light. 

It’s why, despite their tempestuousness, his relationship with clubscene queen Julia is the healthiest in his life: She believes Howard is an uncut gem. She believes in him when no one else does, going so far as to tattoo his name on her ass when he’s convinced she fucked darkwave R&B star The Weeknd in a bathroom (long story) in order to prove her love and loyalty to him. She even falls sway to his need to be the author of the elements that flow into his life—at one point, he hides in a closet of their apartment, sexting her, while she lies on the living room couch, unaware Howard is home and watching. We watch as Howard’s instinct is to stand back, to take the elements in play (an aroused girlfriend, an ecstatic night of betting) and orchestrate them like an author, to shape their outcome. He tells her he’s stuck in traffic, on his way, teasing and arousing her, drawing it out with a fiction, before bursting into the room to her shocked and loving embrace, her seduction and arousal fashioned by his narrative.

It’s an acceptance and recognition that he craves yet finds nowhere else in life, most especially with Dinah. At one point, after the Passover Seder, he outright begs her to see inside him, hoping she’ll find what he knows is there (“Just stop for one second. Look at my eyes and they’ll tell you what I’m feeling. Please.”). But the years of his bullshit have taken their toll, blinding her to whatever shines within him, and as he stands there, vulnerable and timid, she laughs and laughs and laughs at what she sees—a pathetic middle-aged schlub. A loser.

It’s a circular pattern of reward and sacrifice in Howard’s life—pursuing proof of his worth by taking bet after bet, knowing that this could be the day he wills a narrative of numbers and scores and coin-flips into being, and alienating so many around him in that pursuit, which then drives him even deeper into his pursuit of winning a bet on himself. All so that the world can finally see that Howard Ratner is special. It’s a desire that even permeates his strange outsider art which he sells at KMH: Furby dolls encrusted with diamonds. He takes these odd, popular-in-the-‘90s dolls (much like Howard was popular in the early-‘90s hip-hop music video scene), and layers them with a skin of diamonds. And when he needily shows them off to potential clients, one can see that these strange creatures are a kind of wish-fulfillment self-portrait for Howard: Strange, small creatures with sad, all-seeing eyes, but with a shining, brilliant exterior—their value is immediately seen and understood, their beauty is wholly on the outside for all to recognize. In a way, they are everything Howard wishes he could be.

Because Howard knows he’s worth betting on, knows there is something luminous within him, and his life is the pursuit of an object just as special, an avatar of the lambent glow within him, that he can bet upon and win. 

~ ~ ~

Which brings us, of course, back to the opal, the one in your hands, the opal inside which the history of everything—including this story, the Ballad of Howie Bling—is contained. You can see exactly what you need to see within the black opal, and no one understands that better than Howard Ratner.

Because when the time comes, he sees nearly everything.

Look in the stone, in its dark shimmer, there it is: See Howard in the lowest moment of his life, when his bravado is punctured after an avalanche of losses and he finally entertains the idea that he is valueless (“I’m not worth it!” he wails when he sees Julia’s ‘Howie’ tattoo). See how the uncut gem he smuggled into America via the belly of a dead fish, the black opal he thought would fetch him a million dollars at auction and solve his life’s chaos, goes unrecognized and devalued, just like him. 

See how the opal captures the attention of Boston Celtics power forward Kevin Garnett, who, like Howard, is electrified by what he sees within it. How Garnett pays him $165,000 for the stone, only $65,000 more than the hundred that Howard borrowed from Arno to buy the opal in the first place. See Arno and his thugs waiting outside KMH’s sealed bulletproof vestibule to take Howard’s money and rob him of his dignity.

See Howard sense the surge of power the opal gives Garnett. Watch as his eyes read the lines of force gathering around him—the sports books that are all betting on Garnett to lose, the men outside who see Howard as a loser to be abused, the stone that, like him, is constantly underestimated—and decide to risk everything by betting the $165,000 on Garnett to win with the power of the opal. See him juicing Garnett with his narrative of a win, the story Howard will force into reality with his inner light.

See Howard lock Arno and his thugs in clear vestibule, while he sits like a king in the center of the KMH showroom, watching the game on TV. See how he makes Arno, the eternal doubter, watch him. See Howard cross a staggering emotional spectrum, pacing the floor, narrating the game, watching it unfold according to his will, just as he predicted it would. See Howard aglow in his kingdom, surrounded by his jewels, as his uncut gem pushes Garnett to play the best game of his life, just as Howard knew it would. See Howard recognize that he was right about Garnett, about his opal, about himself and finally, as Arno watches in genuinely giddy astonishment, see Howard’s captive audience of doubters realize that he was right. That he is more than his flaws, that there is something special within him.

See Howard win.

And as with all risks, with all wins, comes the required sacrifice, the one needed needed to complete the story—be it a series of plagues or a broken leg or a mass exodus, the House always collects a fee for such massive gambles. The bullet that passes through Howard’s skull when he releases Arno’s furious collectors ends his story here, at its highest, most exultant moment, when his bet won millions, when he bent reality to his will, when he overcame centuries of hate and loss to play god, if only for one perfect moment. The tragically beautiful, or beautifully tragic, thing about Howard is that he must have known the House would always win in the end, but he bet on himself anyway. Because after a lifetime of loss, a single win redeeming everything within him would be worth that sacrifice. 

See Howard lying on the floor, his head haloed in a pool of blood, almost smirking at his victory even in death—his broken vestibule won’t open for these men, and they’ll be found with his body, and pay for what they’ve done, just as Howard has paid. See Howard’s face as it smirks from the cold floor. As a pixelated Garnett says from the television that hovers on the wall over Howards bleeding body: “When you win, it’s all that matters. The Big Be Quiet. The Big Shut Up. Just me and the rock. Nothing else.”

See as the ballad of Howie Bling comes to a close, blood pulsing out of his head from a wound that shimmers with an ethereal light more brilliant than any gem in the shattered cases that surround him. There’s a reason the film’s title is pluralized—the opal was only one of the flawed containers of surprising beauty in Uncut Gems. In the Big Be Quiet, the Big Shut Up, this man was the other.

Don’t make the mistake of looking at Howard Ratner. You have to see inside him to experience the wonders he contains.