'Uncut Gems' Is to Passover As 'Die Hard' Is to Christmas
Move over Die Hard, yet another movie has earned its place as an unconventional holiday classic – this time for Passover – none other than 2019's critically acclaimed Adam Sandler thriller, Uncut Gems, and this time, it's somewhat intentional. Amid its heart-racing madness, the Safdie Brothers flick has expanded beyond its jewel-encrusted realm, using the Jewish springtime celebration to both juxtapose and enhance the film's fast-paced chaos.
Centered around protagonist Howard Ratner, a charismatic jeweler in New York City's diamond district, Uncut Gems is two hours and 15 minutes of frenetic stress, following our leading man as he navigates several obstacles daunting enough to spearhead their own respective films -- a gambling addiction, the ire of his soon-to-be-ex-wife and mistress, the fate of a rare black opal he acquired from Ethiopia, his beef with The Weeknd, the disintegration of several professional relationships, and the angry collectors desperate to retrieve the $100,000 he owes to his brother-in-law, just to name a few.
Uncut Gems is trailblazing in its ability to translate pure, frenetic panic into a gripping thriller, a frustrating and aggressively intimate portrait of a man that continually makes poor decisions one after another. Despite this iconic calling card, the film is so much more than an exercise in creating a work of visceral, cinematic anxiety, doubling as a Passover film symbolic of the occasion's history and modern traditions.
One of Judaism’s major holidays, Passover, also known as Pesach, is a spring festival of freedom, celebrating the Hebrew slaves' liberation from the Egyptians according to the book of Exodus. With a variety of rituals, including the prohibition of leavened bread (hence matzoh everything), reclining while eating, and a Passover seder (a religious gathering where the story of Passover is recounted alongside songs, prayers, and symbolic food), the holiday is one centered around storytelling, in which the tale's supervillain, Pharoh seemingly shares several of Sandler's character's downfalls.
“The Passover Story is a confrontation between a human king, Pharaoh, who saw himself as a god, and the real King of the Universe,” Rabbi Michael Gold of Florida’s Temple Beth Torah Sha'aray Tzedek explained on his synagogue’s Facebook page last year. “Pharaoh was a man out of control. He was stubborn, hardening his heart over and over and refusing to allow the Israelites to go. In the end, there had to be no question who won this great battle of wills. Pharaoh had to be defeated. And so the Ten Plagues came onto Egypt.”
This hubris is not a trait exclusive to the Old Testament antagonist. As Rabbi Gold notes later in his social media musing, risk-taking Ratner appears to possess many similar tendencies.
“Like Pharaoh, Adam Sandler’s Ratner cannot stop,” he continued. “Even as his life spins out of control, he cannot walk away from his addiction to make the one big payoff that will set him up for life. Sandler’s character is an example of addiction at its worst. Whether drinking or drugs, gambling or pride, overeating or sex, there are people who simply cannot stop. Fortunately. there are programs, from twelve step meetings to rehab centers, to help people change their ways. But it is a huge commitment to take advantage of such programs. No twelve step meetings existed in ancient Egypt for Pharaoh to deal with his uncontrolled pride.”
These similarities expand beyond overconfidence at the expense of their sanity and those around them, delving into a level of disregard for others explicit suffering. Pharaoh, as represented in the religious text, enslaved the Jews, mistreated them, and refused to let them go even when demanded to do so via several acts of divine intervention.
Although not the leader of a nation, Howard also overlooks – intentionally or unintentionally -- the visceral suffering of the Jewish Ethiopian miners that procured the film’s titular uncut gem. The movie begins with an incredibly graphic scene, depicting an injured worker in the nation’s Welo mine, his skin flayed open and his tibia exposed, having suffered a catastrophic injury on the job. Amid the rush to evacuate the worker from the mine, two men remain inside, excavating the black opal that later catalyzes a large percentage of the film’s plot.
According to Josh Safdie, one half of the Safdie Brothers directing duo behind the film, Howard procures the gem due to a feeling of “kinship” between him and the Ethiopian Jews “faraway people who read the same text, who are following the same story that he was following.” Considering this as well as Howard’s highly-impulsive and materialistic nature, he seems to source the opal either unaware of or apathetic to the apparent plight of the people that actually found the gem.
Yet if the protagonist was, in fact, unaware of this suffering, it's unclear whether this information would change his mind on whether to source the stone. On one hand, he claims he’s moved upon learning about Jewish communities living across the globe after watching a documentary detailing their cultural experience. It is unclear how much of the aforementioned danger was included in the film he says he watched. On the other, his financial situation grows increasingly dire, ultimately evolving into a deadly shootout.
Considering these likenesses, Howard's assignment to reading the ten plagues section of the Seder is almost symbolic. A rare moment of peace within a highly chaotic film, the seder provides a glimpse at what a somewhat normal life could look like for the Ratner family if the out-of-control patriarch changes his ways. As such, it seems reading about the ten plagues God sent to Egypt in the text – water turning into blood, frogs, lice, flies, cattle disease, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and the death of the firstborn – is not only biblically appropriate but alludes to where Howard is on his journey of self-destruction. Moments before the Pesach scene, his coworker Demany angrily pours red liquid into Howard's fishtank, in what may be a reference to water changing into blood. At the end of the film, Howard is suddenly shot in the head, instantly dying. While several factors are at play in the death of our protagonist, it could also stand as an allusion to the death of the firstborn.
“The plagues seemed to be most relevant for the film," Josh explained of why they chose that section of Seder to highlight, nothing that they also included the traditional Dayenu song as an excuse for Idina Menzel, who plays Howard's wife, to sing.
Even with these Pesach parallels playing an integral role in the film’s setting and broader context, they weren't always an innate part of the movie's development. Uncut Gems was always intended to feature “some sort of Jewish gathering”, according to Josh, but Passover’s selection as the uniting event was a coincidence, a product of casting basketball superstar Kevin Garnett and using his 2012 NBA playoff games as the story’s backdrop.
“The high holiday depended on which basketball player we were going to write around,” the elder Safdie told Variety in 2019. “When Kevin Garnett became the character, we centered it around a playoff game, which coincidentally coincides with the Jewish calendar when Passover takes place.”
Yet to Josh, it seems this lucky alignment enriched the story, providing additional layers of religious precedent to the film’s events. “Form always follows function, and I believe mysticism follows function as well,” he continued. “The fact that the movie takes place around Passover, the holiest of holidays, is so apt. This particular holiday, you’re supposed to derive much meaning from suffering, in a movie about a guy where your hero is enduring and suffering.”
As previously mentioned, Uncut Gems's seder scene is widely regarded as a lone moment of relative peace in (which may evoke the celebration's unusually relaxed dining protocols) amid the film’s adrenaline-fueled runtime, an effect ingeniously achieved by mirroring the intimate details of the writer's own Pesach celebration.
“Once we landed on Passover itself, you start to mine your own personal experiences with Pesach and certain intricacies of thousands of years of tradition connected to this barbaric story,” Josh explained. “The way Jewish assimilation has happened, you have these xeroxed Haggadahs, one person has the nice Haggadah. You have the kids’ table because they’re not men yet — when you’re bar mitzvahed, you can sit at the adults’ table.”
“Even having an afikomen scene,” added Benny Safdie. “Showing that part, the post-dinner relaxation where everyone is just talking — it’s a strange holiday where you have all of these people talking about suffering and plagues and you have to be together with family at the same time.”
More so than merely a break from the heart-racing action, the duo asserts the inclusion of the family-oriented scene is integral to understanding Sandler's character as more than just the human embodiment of chaos.
“It’s a pause from everything that’s happening,” Josh explained. “You see what Howard’s life is other than the part we have in addition to the matches. That’s so necessary to understanding the film. If it wasn’t there, I don’t know if other things would click into place.”
So folks, once you've finished your seder and found the virtual afikomen, try sitting down for a screening of Uncut Gems -- a modern Passover classic for when you've already rewatched the Rugrats special.