James Cathcart’s review published on Letterboxd:
Telluride Film Festival, DCP
Perhaps you see the Safdies as performers of high-wire narrative acrobatics, taking the viewer on break-neck, claustrophobic rides that don’t relent till the final frame. You’d be right, and Gems is exactly the film you were expecting.
Or maybe you see the Safdies as the self-appointed gatekeepers of an imagined underworld, whose depictions of grit and viscerality are the feigned posturing of privileged sons for whom human despair is merely an aesthetic. You’d also be right, and Gems is exactly the film you were expecting, too.
While it’d be cynical to not acknowledge the brothers' talent as filmmakers, you’d have to be diluted to claim that what they do is dynamic.
As storytellers, they’re one-cord-wonders. Since Heaven Knows What, their work has struck a singular, frenetic pitch - they only know one song, but by-god, they play the hell out of it.
But can that be sustained for an entire career? In less than a decade, their work has already grown predictable. Love it or hate it, there are no surprises here. The thrill you expect is the thrill you get.
Nevertheless, Gems appears to be their bid to enter the industry establishment - an attempt to be seen as serious, award-contending filmmakers. If there’s any doubt, look no further than the protracted 130 min runtime and strategic Telluride world-premiere.
But the Safdies still have plenty of maturing to do. Don’t be fooled by the Exorcist-homage opening scene and flashes of tribal conflict during one of the film’s subsequent “Journey Into The Gemstone” sequences. If this film has anything to say about the nature of exploitation (debatable), it takes a back seat to their nascent impulses towards cinematic bravado.
If a nomination comes from this, it’ll be for Sandler’s turn, and it’ll be well-deserved. While Darius Khondji’s photography isn’t as baroque as the work he’s best known for, by moving on from Sean Price Williams, the Safdies have (at least somewhat) liberated their work from the monotonous procession of medium close-ups that stifled their last two features.
So while I doubt Gems will earn the brothers any new converts, it’ll definitely further solidify their status among the fanboys.
“We think like criminals”, Josh once said in an interview with The Fader.
I think he meant they think like careerists.
Same thing though, probably.