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I Googled how much it would be to score an adrenaline shot to the heart from the black market, and no matter how you slice it, you're looking at least a thousands bucks. A Blu-ray copy of Uncut Gems, on the other hand, is a solid $19.99. I think that's a better deal if you're looking for an anxiety-ridden, manic ride that grips you from the first minute and doesn't let go until the last. Writer/directors Josh and Benny Safdie have established a reputation for themselves as the enfents terrible auteurs of raw and gritty drama/thrillers that show an unvarnished look at the dregs of society, established in the terrific indie-real aesthetic of Heaven Knows What and Good Time.
Good Time itself, a hectic single-night adventure of a low-rent criminal (A great performance by Robert Pattinson) struggling to score cash to get his brother out of jail, provides the blueprint for Uncut Gems. If Good Time is a small blip of anxiety, then Uncut Gems is a full-blown heart attack. It follows the epic journey of the shady jewelry dealer and epic screw-up Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) as he jumps from one high stakes and extremely dangerous deal after the other in order to finally make that big payday he's been dreaming of for years. His addiction to scoring tons of money with as little effort as possible is exemplified in his illegal purchase of a valuable opal, which he worships like a biblical-era idolater. Much of the plot, full of one deadly misunderstanding or double-cross after the other, revolves around the sale of this opal, but the Safdies' actual focal point is in Howard's redemption, or whether or not it's even possible to begin with.
The endpoint in movies for characters like these is usually to make enough money to retire for good. In the case of Howard, he's so addicted to living every second of life on the edge, that such a closure, at least mentally, seems impossible. The question stops being, "When will it stop?", and becomes, "Will it ever stop?" This conflict in the protagonist is explored with great detail and a surprising amount of empathy by the Safdies, propped immensely by Sandler's impeccable performance. Even though he's already been established as a great dramatic actor, far better than a comedian in my opinion, Sandler's performance in Uncut Gems represents a new pinnacle in his career. It's a sweaty, bug-eyed, unrelenting depiction of a lost soul that lets Sandler fully disappear into the role.
As usual, Safdies employ a grainy and gritty handheld look to Uncut Gems. The film was shot on 35mm, and the 1080p transfer captures the film's grainy docu-drama look without too much digital scrubbing. This is a drab and grayscale world that perfectly fits the tone of the film, and the transfer captures the theatrical experience perfectly.
The hectic nature of the film creates a busy surround mix that grips the audience and provides essential ambiance to get us into Howard's mind. Even though this isn't a superhero blockbuster, the DTS-HD 5.1 track will give your system quite a workout. It's technically a drama, yes, but there are sequences in Uncut Gems that can be used as sound demo material.
Money on the Street: This half-hour featurette on the making of the film goes beyond the usual EPK stuff and digs deep into the production. It's a vital part of understanding the Safdies' filmmaking methods and their direction of Sandler.
Uncut Gems once again shows that the Safdies are a force to be reckoned with when it comes to indie voices of their generation. This kind of mid-budget drama with a bankable star giving such a subversive and introspective performance is very rare these days. Along with the great A/V presentation, Uncut Gems is an easy buy.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com