Warning: This article contains spoilers
In Norman Lebrecht’s Genius and Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World, 1847-1947, he introduces anxiety – defined as “a sense of dread or apprehension” and anchored in historical experiences of Jews – as the driving force behind Jewish genius. In her Financial Times review of the book, Rebecca Abrams confesses, that the “incautious title” gave her “quite a few twinges of anxiety” because of her “keep-your-head-down Anglo-Jewish” attitude. While America is not riddled with the same historical baggage of anti-Semitism as Europe, Jewish anxiety is pertinent and lurid enough to have travelled across the Atlantic, and into the center of Jewish artistic production.
The Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems has been touted as one of the best films of 2019, and one of the most Jewish mainstream films in over a decade. The film transposes a distinctly Jewish anti-hero into the focal point of a crime thriller to forge a story as gripping as it is painstaking. Yet the knot in the belly of the film is more than merely the ‘tension’ of a gangster film: it is a living and breathing exercise in anxiety, and there is something distinctly Jewish about this anxiety. There is scarcely a reel in the whole film without the naff goatee of Howard Ratner (portrayed by Adam Sandler) occupying the screen: we are closely bound to him and his spiralling sequence of bad decisions until the tragic end, which comes almost as a welcome relief. Uncut Gems gloriously captures and probes this “Jewish anxiety” but also meta-cinematically exports this anxiety onto its Jewish observers.
Old Tropes, New Moments
While many reviews have drawn on Shakespeare’s Shylock to understand Ratner, a more germane example is found in Shakespeare’s contemporary, Christopher Marlowe. His 1589 tragedy The Jew of Malta opens with the protagonist Barabas, bestowed the simple epithet of “wealthy Jew,” doting on “bags of fiery opals, sapphires, amethysts, jacinths, hard topaz, grass-green emeralds, beauteous rubies, sparkling diamonds” in breathless asyndeton. Uncut Gems returns to the Jews and diamond industry they have called home, from Antwerp to Ramat Gan, with similar salacity and sagacity. As the sleazy diamond dealer, Ratner, is straddled by his mistress Julia (Julia Fox) after winning a big bet, jumping from “you look so fucking good” to “I just hit so big,” we can scarcely distinguish between sexual pleasure and avarice. Ratner seems to embody a monstrous hybrid of anti-Semitic stereotypes, with the tropes of greed, gaminess, and godlessness transposed onto contemporary American capitalism —a Barabas on 47th Street.
As Ratner is receiving the results of his colonscopy – his father having “fucking died” from colon cancer – he is only half-present. Ratner complains about the loss of God’s oversight: “Jews and colon cancer. What is that? I thought we were the chosen people?” The colonscopy, however, fades into the background with the relentless punches of the plot: Ratner’s house of cards is collapsing, and by the time we receive the results, they have been blurred into insignificance. The pacing of the film is so relentless that the slow death of cancer has no place in its vista. The doctor, also Jewish, responds prosaically to Ratner’s comments: colon problems funded his house in the Hamptons. This embodies a survival instinct rooted in the historical condition of precarity and persecution, which today, however uncomfortable, has an entirely different resonance.
The film begins and ends by zooming into a carat of the illustrious and eponymous black opal mined in Ethiopia. The Safdie brothers outlined in their interview with Slate that, for Jews, “the only way of accruing status as an individual, as a person who was considered a human being, was through material consumption.” The opal is the ultimate symbol of this ascension of the social ladder, which, with every new rung, has reshaped the contours of this anxiety. The camera zooms into the diamond and the depths of the universe unfold on the screen. The metaphysical shots are the spiritual apex of this otherwise godless film, where the “accrued status” of Jews has diverted one path of anxiety – being identified as different – into a different source of anxiety – being indistinguishable from everybody else through the desired and dreaded process of assimilation. As Ratner comments during his colonscopy, God seems to have abandoned his people, but he does not mention that this abandonment may be mutual. The end of one anxiety, then, fuels a new one, and this cycle never seems to cease.
In many ways, the diamond trade is the perfect metonym for the Jewish liminality. It encapsulates how European anti-Semitism pushed Jews into certain unproductive trades, which were considered ignoble at the time but were soon propelled into the centre of consumer capitalism. On the other hand, it shows how Jews are still burdened by old prejudices towards them, spilling over into synagogue shootings, but how Jews have simultaneously benefitted from partially integrating into ‘whiteness’ and its exploitation of the Global South. In the current moment, it captures the drawn-out days between International Holocaust Memorial Day and the carvings of Palestinian territories by settler lobbies and Christian Evangelicals in the East Room of the White House.
When Ratner, oozing with a meticulous charisma, pitches the black opal to NBA star Kevin Garnett (portrayed by himself), he draws on a narrative that connects him to his Jewishness and to African Americans. He tells Garnett, who he overcomfortably calls “K.G.,” that he saw a tribe of Ethiopian Jews on the history channel, whose yad was adorned with rare and expensive black opals. These are the same opals that Ratner’s sommersaulting salesmanship is putting on the table.While Ratner’s fixer, Demany (Lakeith Stanfield) comments on Ratner’s strange pride – he says how Ratner wants everybody to be a Jew – the Ethiopian Jews are legibly different. They are held at one remove in the iPhone screen he presents to Garnett, as if trapped: they are affected by but never affecting history. Ratner, on the other hand, can reach into his television and grab the black opals for profit: he is aligned with Western capital and is therefore a maker of history. He is selling the Jews to help Jews sell. The Jew, then, is both the subject and the object, revealing the anxious tightrope they have walked from history into the present.
This theme is interrogated by Safdie brothers’ ingenious use of space. The same camera lens that enters the diamond and the universe also zooms into Ratner’s colon, dipping the divine in the scatalogical. The use of space also adds to the claustraphobia. Although the film is characterised by frantic movement – with a huge amount of entrances and exits – the pacing is punctuated by tight, liminal spaces. The audience follow their omnipresent guide into club queues, magnetized security doorways, inside cupboards and trunks, and into numerous bathroom toilets. Even the supposed respite at his daughter’s school play is overshadowed by cronies sitting a few rows behind him, infringing on any claim to paternal redemption and calm.
Jews are perpetually trapped in the middle space, by the heft of historical archetype: if they are poor, they walk into one stereotype; if they are rich, they walk into another. Ratner, always one remove from success, embodies this paradoxical condition: if his final bet fails, he will be a lowlife, and almost certainly get a bullet to the head; if it comes off, he is rapacious, and, fittingly, he still gets a bullet to the head. He is embodiment of the unending anxiety of the liminal middle, and the deadends surrounding it.
Even in all his shamelessness, Ratner seems to succumb to the chip on the collective Jewish shoulder. When he retreats from the Seder to talk to his mistress on the phone, he instinctively takes off his kippa. Could this be an attempt to run from his Jewishness altogether, either into whiteness or unethicalness, or a wry attempt to shield his people from his sins?
In the scene that follows, the pressures of his life converge on him in the bathroom. As he is shouting down his mistress over the phone, he cannot help but stand on the scale to check his own weight in an excruciating moment. His breaking heart is not enough in his restless proclivity for self-flagellation. When he exits, his brother-in-law Arno, who is also the loan shark who has just orchestrated Ratner’s beating, is waiting on the other side of the door. There is nowhere for him to run.
Jews, and any minority, have less room to be ugly without a fear of evoking their own hatred, or without the ugliness being associated with their very essence. While there are some attributes Jews insistently tie to the slippery term of “Jewish experience”, they are almost always matched by a nagging wariness of essentializing. In pushing these tropes to their limits, the Safdie brothers have produced, in the magisterial eyesore that is Howard Ratner, a shattering culmination of what has come before, a grotesque caricature in a new and challenging context. This, however, does not make the fidgeting go away: just what exactly are they going to think of us?
Jonathan Shamir is a freelance writer and a news editor at Haaretz.