By Jonathan Dorst
The book of Exodus in the Old Testament is a story of two types of people and two ways of living. The first type of person and lifestyle is represented by Pharaoh in his drive to build bigger and bigger buildings and work his (Jewish) slaves seven days a week (Exodus 1:14) to produce the marvels of Egypt. The other type of person and lifestyle is represented by Yahweh God in His desire to have a (Jewish) people who are defined by their just and loving relationships to one another and their ability to rest (Exodus 20:10).
The dramatic highlight of the book is when God brings about a series of ten plagues upon Egypt to convince Pharaoh to let His people out of their slavery. When, nine plagues in, Pharaoh is still resolute in not allowing the Israelites to leave, God finally unleashes His angel of death to kill every firstborn son in Egypt. While the Egyptian families are devastated, the Israelite families are spared by spreading blood over the doorways of their homes, signaling to the angel to pass over their homes.
In Uncut Gems, the new film from (Jewish) filmmakers Josh & Benny Safdie, we see a man torn between these two ways of living and unsure of what type of person he wants to be. Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) is a (Jewish) jewelry store owner who, from the beginning of the film, is working overtime to pay off his gambling debts at the same time that he’s trying to find the money to place his next big bet. As we follow him through a series of failures and new ideas, we find ourselves exhausted at the energy Howard must put forth to build his empire, try to satisfy both his family and his mistress, and keep ahead of his creditors and their goons. The Safdies do a great job of keeping the tension ratcheted up at an almost unsustainable pace.
In the middle of the film, however, we are treated to a peaceful scene that happens in the home of Howard’s father-in-law. His extended family is celebrating Passover together and we watch as they go through the motions of the traditional meal, at one point having Howard name each of the plagues- blood, frogs, gnats, locusts, etc…- while dipping a finger in their wine and throwing it on their plates. This Passover ceremony is a snapshot of the film as a whole, as we follow Howard, the materialist who can’t stop working to achieve, through close call after close call (plague after plague), hoping that he’ll finally stop making bad decisions and begin valuing relationships over money before he gets to his own final plague. While the film doesn’t go as literal as the 1999 film Magnolia, with its frogs raining from the sky, it does still clearly give us visual hints of the plagues, as when a character pours red Gatorade into Howard’s fish tank (Exodus 7:20-21).
One of the key images in the film is the door to Howard’s jewelry shop. This door, with bulletproof glass windows, automatically locks so that people can only get in after someone inside the shop buzzes them in. Halfway through the film, however, the door starts to get stuck, and after using a hammer to try to jolt it into working, Howard uses some metal shavings above the door to get it to open. Without giving away spoilers, the dramatic highlight of the movie comes when the shavings above the door are swept away and a literal bringer of death is summoned through the door.
Whereas Moses, the human protagonist of Exodus, “[chose] rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin” (Hebrews 11:24-25), Howard simply has to choose to slow down and live the rich life he already has. At certain moments, as when he is talking to his wife and daughter, Howard gets close to giving up his greedy schemes and settling in to a restful contentment with the good life he already has. But, ultimately, he is seduced by the way of empire, the way of Pharaoh and every other world builder whose avarice is unlimited, believing that that way of life is the best way to be truly alive. And we know, as we watch his folly, that there must be a better way of living- that our hearts were made for relationship, and the God who wants our hearts also gives us the rest that we need.
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