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The Ending Of Uncut Gems Explained

There's one big question left lingering in the air at the end of the critically beloved 2019 film "Uncut Gems." The audience is left to decide if the antihero met an untimely death or an inevitable one. The frenetic Howard Ratner, played by Adam Sandler, practically shakes with a compulsive need to take risks, channeled mostly through an addiction to gambling. Critics lauded Sandler's performance as the best of his career thus far, exceeding his ferocious turn in 2008's "Punch Drunk Love." Howard is constantly surviving on the skin of his teeth, and he knows it. He is both in complete denial and completely self-aware of his charm and his disorder, causing the people around him to somehow hang onto his every word even if they know he's lying. He holds court the way only a functioning addict can. 

"Uncut Gems" presents the theme of addiction through every one hurried step of Howard, who finds a new way to push his luck in every scene. The final minutes of the movie — the basketball game, the goons in the bulletproof cage, and his mistress's run around the casino — all culminate in the death of Howard. Here's how.

Howard Ratner is no hero

Ten minutes into "Uncut Gems" and you know who Howard is. He's a man set in his ways, who's found success despite the bad decisions he makes. His career as a jewelry store owner has only served to grow his gambling addiction, evidenced repeatedly: He pawns Kevin Garnett's NBA championship ring, gifts counterfeit Rolex watches that aren't his, and plays a game of cat and mouse with the black opal, using its theoretical wealth to get the money he needs to pay off a portion of his gambling debt (one of many).

The events in "Uncut Gems" are a mere slice of Howard's life, and it's clear the situation is not out of the norm for him. He's practiced in the ways of hustling the hustlers around him and worming his way out of bad situations. In the events of the film, today is the day that the hungriest loan shark, Arno (Eric Bogosian) is out to collect from Howard despite him being Arno's brother-in-law. This only makes it easier for Arno to track Howard around town, cornering him at his jewelry store in Manhattan.

Inspired by his own rousing speech to Garnett before a game, Howard sends his mistress Julia (Julia Fox) off to bet the money, confident it's the best choice despite the goons standing in the other room.

Symbols of addiction in Uncut Gems

In the final build-up, Ratner keeps Arno and his men trapped in the bulletproof security barrier that stands between him and the outside world. Online fans of the film have theorized on Reddit that everything from the barrier to Howard's aquarium serves as a symbol for Howard's own mental cage.

"Uncut Gems" manages to make even a children's recital into a life or death situation for Howard, who absorbs the threat as another situation to simply quell in order to continue running to other parts of his metaphorical cage.

Between his strained marriage, his secret mistress, his jewelry business, and an unknown amount of debt, Howard lives on a tightrope. The daily events of his life are therefore a self-destructive cycle, coming and going like the cash in his hands. The film's MacGuffin, the uncut opal gem, is the most obvious metaphor for Howard's addiction, forcing those who gaze upon it, like Howard and NBA player Kevin Garnett, to become enthralled and chase the stone.

Uncut Gems asks us if humans can fundamentally change

Howard ultimately keeps Arno and his men in the cage a little too long. Fed up with his behavior over the last 48 hours and never a fan, Phil (Keith William Richards) shoots Howard immediately upon being freed. Arno panics — he never meant for his sister's husband to die — but he's silenced by Phil, who kills him, too. The ultimate consequence of addiction is shown in a literal sense with their deaths.

Even if Howard had lived and Julia had returned with their million-dollar winnings, we get the sense that the next day would have echoed similar events with a different set of faces. Arno wasn't even the only person Howard owed money to. We're shown plenty of acquaintances around town Howard is indebted to: the pawnshop holding his Knicks ring, two older loan sharks who follow him around town, his former assistant Demany (LaKeith Stanfield), and his own father. Unaware of his death, Julia walks away with the money as Phil robs the jewelry store, leaving Howard with nothing when he was one good decision away from having everything. We're left wondering if a gun to his face would have caused Howard to turn his life around, or if it just would have been a stepping stone for even greater risks.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).