In most films, the discovery of a buried body, as well as the rusted murder weapon next to it, would be enough to send the narrative spiraling into the trenches of a film noir or crime procedural thriller. But in Joe Swanberg’s Digging For Fire, that revelation is nothing more than one of the many impatient, staid ripples within the marriage of its lead couple, played wonderfully by Jake Johnson and Rosemarie DeWitt. In fact, it’s virtually a side note in a film much more interested in the dynamics of marriage rather than the “who” or “why” of the skeletal remains.
Beginning high in the Hollywood hills, Tim (Johnson) and wife Lee (DeWitt) embark on a weekend of house sitting for a friend whose residence dwarfs their modest means in the valley below. The couple’s discontent is felt immediately as they quibble over their incomplete tax forms and Lee blames Tim for procrastination.
Tim’s attention span is further depleted when, after poking loosely into the hilly terrain in the backyard, he uncovers a rusty pistol in the dirt. Lee disregards it as yet another excuse. Tim’s repeated suggestions of something sinister just below their feet is continually ignored by Lee and she thinks it’s all behind them when, the next day, she arranges for her parents to watch their son while she spends a much needed night out with friends.
Digging For Fire then settles into an exploration of the couple’s night apart from each other. Tim spends his time smoking pot and hosting a small get-together with friends (played by Sam Rockwell and Mike Birbiglia). Things gets even more interesting when another friend shows up with two attractive, younger women (Anna Kendrick and the current indie “it girl” Brie Larson). There’s an attraction between Larson and Johnson that threatens to develop into something greater, interrupted only by their shared obsession of digging further into the ground outside and discovering more unusual objects.
Meanwhile, Lee’s night isn’t transgression-free either. After being dumped by her friends (Melanie Lynskey and Ron Livingston in a cameo scene that feels so true in the way we become complacent with our significant other over the slightest thing), she winds up at a bar. Meeting Ben (Orlando Bloom), she too finds herself attracted to someone else and pushing the boundaries of monogamy.
Co-written by Jake Johnson, Digging For Fire is a finely tuned character study that sort of sneaks up on the viewer. There are no grand moments of emotional drama or strained ‘indie’ film hysterics. It’s all subtle and authentic, allowing both Johnson and DeWitt to explore a couple who are not perfect and still tempted by the energies of the past when they were younger, more attractive and free from the burdens of parenthood. Likewise, the secondary characters — especially Larson and Rockwell — inhabit personalities that are common on screen, yet they’re given an especially acute rendition here. Just watch the disappointment in Larson’s face as she leaves Tim or the abrupt, child-like bitterness that erupts from Rockwell in another scene. It’s supporting turns like these that really give a film weight.
A prolific artist, Digging For Fire is Swanberg’s seventeenth feature film since 2003, not including shorts, producing other people’s films and acting. Borne out of the ‘mumblecore’ generation of filmmakers whose ultra-low budget efforts pride themselves on fastidious production due to working with a stock set of actors and crew, Digging For Fire is one of Swanberg’s best yet. Even though it features some of the same variations on his favorite themes about hipster love and generational confusion, it also hits sharply close to home in any thirty-somethings’ heart. How many times do we wish for something adventurous to distract us from our mundane ordinary lives? Too many times to count. In Digging For Fire, not only does that adventure mask the inferiority of a man not quite sure how to flirt anymore, but it serves as a metaphor for a couple who slowly learn the best things are on the surface, right in front of them.
Digging For Fire opens on Friday, August 28 at The Magnolia.