Note: This review was originally published back in January 2015 as part of our coverage for the Sundance Film Festival.
Something interesting is happening right now in independent cinema — it’s growing up. The leading progenitors of the “mumblecore movement” are now family men, and they like talking about being family men. Mark and Jay Duplass are doing it weekly for HBO with their witty, exceptional new series Togetherness, while Joe Swanberg’s spent the past year cooking home-styled feasts with Happy Christmas and now Digging for Fire. But it makes sense: They’re all pushing 40 (Jay’s actually a healthy 41), and they’ve all made a career on dissecting personal relationships (see: The Puffy Chair, Hannah Takes the Stairs). So, it’s only natural that they’d start issuing films that comment on the modern American family.
Swanberg’s latest, the aforementioned Digging for Fire, examines the corrosive effects that marriage and child-rearing has on a couple. It’s his most accessible work to date, and possibly his strongest, too. There’s a good-humored percipience to the story, which he wrote alongside the film’s star Jake Johnson (also married, also pushing 40), that appears to derive from a personal place within the Midwestern filmmaker. Not only did he cast his son, Jude, as the couple’s child (a trait this film also shares with Happy Christmas), but the dialogue, set pieces, and particular wardrobes all hint at a level of detail that’s near-mathematical by Swanberg’s archetypal standards. It’s even shot in 35mm film! And yet he hardly sacrifices his own rugged naturalism.
Then again, Swanberg doesn’t have much of a choice when his characters are so organic. Set in Los Angeles, the story follows the adventurous exploits of Tim (Johnson) and Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt), a thirtysomething couple who are tasked with housesitting a gorgeous, mountainous estate for the weekend. When Tim stumbles upon a rusty, old gun and a creepy bone in the backyard, something magical awakens inside him. He’s giddy, curious, and excited to uncover the rest of the mystery. Lee, whose client owns the house and the yard he wants to dig up, isn’t so impressed. After all, he has a stack of taxes to sift though, and she is in dire need of a night alone. So, they compromise, and Tim’s left with the house while Lee drops their child off at her nearby parents’ home.
From there, the film splits off into two narratives, though both wrestle with the same themes. Tim indulges in his mysterious quest amongst the dirt by inviting his pals over for an impromptu digging party, while Lee escapes to her own friends and eventually the bustling city nightlife that has been so alien to her as of late. Tangentially, they both express their weighty anxieties on parenting while they desperately attempt to suck out the childless marrow of the weekend. It’s a fascinating character study done well through tantalizing stakes and enlightening discussions that all lead to a graceful landing brimming with emotion.
Part of that success materializes from Swanberg’s scattered visual metaphors throughout the film’s taut 85 minutes. They’re everywhere: from Tim’s looming stack of tax receipts on the dining room table (ahem, marital burden) to Lee’s preferred choice of reading (David Schnarch’s Passionate Marriage). At one point, a neighbor stops by and explicitly warns Tim about his digging, saying: “You don’t wanna find anything down there — believe me.” Some might scoff at these obvious nods — especially after subscribing to years of Swanberg’s muted, inferred messages — but they’re all an intricate part of the film’s thematic DNA.
If anything’s distracting, however, it’s the all-star ensemble, no doubt Swanberg’s most expansive cast to date. His principal leads, Johnson and DeWitt, are also joined by Sam Rockwell, Mike Birbiglia, Anna Kendrick, Orlando Bloom, Brie Larson, Timothy Simons, Jenny Slate, Ron Livingston, Melanie Lynskey, Sam Elliott, and a few others. It would be easy to dismiss their small roles as gluttonous, but Swanberg squeezes in the best of their abilities despite the little time they have, especially Birbiglia, who plays Tim’s moral, schlubby friend. He was exceptional in Sleepwalk with Me, and he’s just as hilarious here.
Though, another strong character is the film’s score. Composer Dan Romer (Beasts of the Southern Wild) elevates each scene with a series of warm, glowing compositions that ensconce the mind with melody and heart. Swanberg really should push for a soundtrack release, preferably on vinyl, because this is the sort of cerebral electronica that could satiate any die-hard fans of Brian Eno, Ulrich Schnauss, or Hans Zimmer. It’s floaty, it’s poppy, eh, you’d never stop listening to it.
Marriage is hard, parenting is impossible, and life will always invite mystery. Swanberg and Johnson know this first hand, and it’s that knowledge that empowers Digging for Fire. Rarely do films accurately juggle the pitfalls and treasures of marriage — in fact, they’re usually reduced to dramatic embellishments — but there’s a tear-jerking wisdom to this film that’s quite remarkable. The writers accept their characters’ faults, and they never appear to shame them. Not once. There’s something strangely cathartic about that. After all, we don’t always need a shovel to do the digging … it just happens.
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