I’m A Hustler Baby: Uncut Gems, Parasite and the Cinema of Scammers

A crop of Hollywood ‘grifter’ films reflect growing pessimism about the state of capitalism 

Midway through the Safdie brothers’ thriller Uncut Gems (2019), Howard Ratner – played with maniacal intensity by Adam Sandler – sits in an elite New York auction room next to his father in-law Gooey (Judd Hirsch). Howard’s enchanting black opal, the uncut gem at the film’s heart, is up for auction and Gooey is there to artificially raise its value. Sandler’s character looks more respectable in this scene, dressed in a suit and tie, than he does in his usual gauche designer clothes, flashy jewellery and neurotically trimmed goatee. Yet despite the auction’s decorous atmosphere, this is site of the film’s most naked scam. 

Recently, it seems that scammers like Gooey have infiltrated almost every aspect of economic, political and cultural life. We still live in the long shadow of the 2008 Great Recession, instigated by vampiric bankers who knowingly sold bad debt. Hoodwinking was central to Donald Trump’s political ascendency, from the Obama ‘birther’ conspiracy (the false accusation that the former president lacks US citizenship), to Trump’s own self-made myth and the glaring contradiction that a man who authored The Art of the Deal (1987) should file for bankruptcy six times. Consider the Fyre Festival scandal (immortalised by not one but two documentaries) and the rise of the Instagram scammer (epitomised by the bizarre Caroline Calloway story) and it’s no wonder that Jia Tolentino declared, in The New Yorker, that scamming has become the ‘dominant form of American life.’ What’s behind the curious appeal of such demonstrably awful people? 

Josh Safdie, Benny Safdie, Uncut Gems, 2018, film still. Courtesy: A24

Uncut Gems isn’t the first Hollywood film since the recession to capitalize on this cultural obsession. From the crooked stockbrokers who run rampant in The Wolf Of Wall Street (2014) to The Big Short (2015), which unravels the subprime mortgage scandal like a slick heist movie, such films paint a grotesque picture of modern finance: men manipulating capital from remote computer screens while bellowing into telephones. Like DiCaprio’s titular wolf Jordan Belfort, Sandler’s gambling addict Howard shouts constantly as he shifts credit from person to person, betting big on basketball games while maintaining an elite albeit tasteless New York jewellery shop. He exists in a perpetually accelerated state of anxiety, an experience driven home to clammy effect by frequently disorientating editing and overwhelming sound design. Howard – a shallow, habitual opportunist – isn’t just highly strung, but the twitchy embodiment of 21st-century capitalism, bulldozing his way through time, space and people.

The Safdie brothers explore the spatial characteristics of this obsession with wealth. New York’s Diamond District – where much of the film takes place – is a site of gleaming metallic and glass surfaces. Howard’s own shop glitters with golden artefacts, none more crass than diamond-encrusted Furbies. ‘It’s this idea of taking pop culture and canonising it with wealth,’ co-director Josh Safdie told GQ. ‘That was immediately symbolic, the trappings of consumerism.’

Jordan Peele, Us, 2018, production still. Courtesy: Universal Pictures

Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite (2019) – which centres on a South Korean family conning their way to a more materially fruitful life – deploys similarly stark visualisations of extreme wealth and poverty. Bong’s protagonists, the Kim family, live in a cramped basement flat – ‘half above ground, half beneath it’ according to the director – cluttered to the point of claustrophobia with water stains seeping through its walls. The Park family, their wealthy counterparts and the object of the film’s scam, live in a minimalist mansion. Across numerous interviews, Bong reiterated his commitment to the contrasting textures and surfaces of the rich and poor, from the sleek to the grubby, the smooth to the rough. In one dream-like sequence, members of the Kim family hastily make their way from the Park home to their own, traversing a city Bong renders in sharply vertiginous terms. As an apocalyptic rain storm erupts, they careen down hundreds of steps into the city’s impoverished heart. 

Parasite foregoes realism for cartoonish distortions and clearly intimated symbols. Bong’s depiction of a literal and metaphorical underclass aids his barbed structural critique. The imagery is eerily reminiscent of Jordan Peele’s lyrical horror movie Us (2019), in which a subterranean group known as the ‘Tethered’ escape from an underground complex to exact revenge on their affluent surface-dwelling doppelgängers. Us resists less tidy interpretations than Parasite, but stark material inequality drives the relationship between the underclass and those who live above ground. Alongside Uncut Gems, Parasite and Us reveal social and economic realities many of us would prefer to go unseen. Indeed, the Safdie brothers open with an Ethiopian miner being hauled out of poorly regulated working conditions. The huge gash in his leg – revealing an exposed broken tibia – makes clear the brutality and violence of global capitalism.

Main image: Bong Joon Ho, Parasite, 2019, promotional image. Courtesy: Neon 

Lewis Gordon is a UK-based technology and culture writer. His work appears in outlets such as Vice, The Verge, and The AV Club.

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