How Men Lose
‘Uncut Gems’ is a movie about the perverse need to win at all costs
After over an hour and a half of tense bets, frightening car rides with gun-wielding henchmen, creepy brothers and some naked time in a trunk, Uncut Gems finally gave me the sense of unease I had been promised.
In one of the pivotal scenes of the movie, the one that launched thousands of memes, Howard Ratner, a diamond-encrusted Furbie-selling jeweler played by Adam Sandler, explains to basketball great Kevin Garnett his philosophy about winning, a dark look into the thinking of a man completely consumed by, for lack of a better term, toxic masculinity.
For Howard, toxic masculinity presents itself in a classic way: an unrelenting pursuit of control, combined with a pathological need to win at all costs in order to dominate and flex your power, all of it a cover for the reality of how small he actually feels inside. When Howard frantically shouts “Fuck them for doubting you!” in his pep talk to Kevin Garnett — referencing Garnett’s fickle fans — it’s clearly just projection. Howard sees himself as the one people doubt. He sees himself as a man who has worked hard and never given what he was due. He feels entitled to respect he hasn’t earned.
Early in the scene, Garnett accuses Ratner of playing games and conning him, but there is only one person that Ratner is really conning and that is himself. Throughout the film, I couldn’t stand him, a testament to the very likable Sandler’s performance. But when Howard said his viral line, “This is who I am. This is how I win,” as they say on the internet, I felt that.
I always bristle at the term ‘toxic masculinity.’ What exactly does it mean? It’s almost become another idea that has been rendered meaningless by overuse and misuse in pithy Twitter dunks about Gaston from Beauty and the Beast. But whatever you call it, even if it is hard to clearly define, I know it exists, because it’s in my DNA.
When I was under the power of abusive men as a child I fought back by mirroring their toxic traits. Toxic men mimic other toxic men. And some of these men reminded me of Sandler’s Ratner character. I wasn’t betting everything I have on big games or scrambling to pawn shops to dig myself out of never-ending holes. All of my gambling was emotional, but equally high stakes. When my dad decided to play emotional chicken with me, I wanted him to meet his match. As the kid in the old anti-drug PSA famously said to his dad, “I learned it by watching you!”
I had a perverse need to win at all costs. I would gamble with my feelings, constantly upping the ante so he could never win. I would never let him know he hurt me, no matter how hard he tried, holding back tears, laughing at taunts, internally telling myself over and over again, “This is how I win.”
When you’re flailing and out of control, whether you’re a child in an abusive household or a gambling addict gem dealer in 2012, you cling to the idea that you need just one more bet, just one more time tricking your dad into not hurting you, for it all to end. For it to finally be enough. That moment of self-realization, seeing myself in Howard during that scene, added a raw patina to the already stressful final scenes of the film, seeing all of the hollow victories that make up the long con people can play on themselves. The pursuit of control and power is intense and exhausting even without an electronic score upping that feeling of being on edge. You always feel so close to winning, when you’re really doing nothing more than keeping your head above water.
As an adult I continued to trauma bond my way through life, finding broken men to hurt me, not letting them know, picking up more hollow wins, only just recently realizing how much of my time and energy I was losing by always having to win. I let myself accept that cutting my losses and moving on was actually winning and I finally felt like I could breathe again.
But as dark as things got, I never equated losing with being a loser, I just preferred winning. For Howard and men like him though, losing reveals everything they don’t want to admit about themselves.
Howard Ratner is an insecure man who feels the need to present himself as a winner and that is a lethal combination. Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than when Howard gives Kevin Garnett his beloved opal at the beginning of the film. It was the first indication that this guy wanted something more than money, he wanted power and respect. A secure man would have told Garnett that there was no fucking way they were letting him take a million-dollar opal to a basketball game as a good luck charm, but Howard desperately wants to be liked and he would risk everything to be in what he considers the alpha male club.
But he’s an imposter in that world, and there really is nothing more dangerous than a man who knows he’s a fraud and is about to be found out. They’ve bought so far into the idea of what it means to be a man, society’s idea, that the fear of not being seen that way is worse than anything that will befall them at the hands of a loan shark’s tough guys. The more I realized this about Howard, the tenser the film got. When men are trapped in this mode not only do men lose, we all lose.
You need to look no further for a real-world example of this in action, then the obsession with machismo and ‘winning at all costs’ mentality that is a plague on our society in the Age of MAGA. We are beaten down daily by the most pathologically needy person to ever occupy the White House, a liar, and a con man, who is equal parts faux macho and someone with a deep-seated fear of being seen for what he really is, a cruel and pathetic coward. The need to always win and the need to always be right are practically one and the same, and because of that, we might suffer four more years where the worst people have won. About 40% of the country is still looking for those meaningless victories and would rather double down than admit that maybe they bet on the wrong man.
The need to win is a prison, and watching Howard navigate that in Uncut Gems is ultimately what I found to be so meaningful about the film. In movies and in real life the hardest thing to do is to watch people continue to live in a toxic cycle that they are seemingly unable or unwilling to escape from, they can’t see or admit that they lost long ago.
When we are finally able to separate admitting we were wrong or ‘losing’ with being a loser, this is how we win.