Digging for Fire: Finding Gold, by Josh Long
Whether or not mainstream audiences like Joe Swanberg films, actors definitely do, and that’s one of the reasons he’s able to keep making movies. If you don’t believe it, look at the folks who pop up in Digging for Fire – Sam Rockwell, Orlando Bloom, Mike Bribiglia, Anna Kendrick, Sam Elliott, Brie Larson, Jenny Slate, Melanie Lynskey, Ron Livingston…you get the idea. And that’s the supporting cast. It makes sense that actors would be drawn to Swanberg’s filmmaking. It’s very free form and improvisational, it’s extremely human; he gives actors a lot to work with, and a lot of creative control. It seems like that could devolve into a messy, overly talky vanity piece, but that never happens. Digging for Fire is usual Swanberg fare. Simple but affecting, deep without becoming preachy, and dancing on the line between comedy and drama.
Jake Johnson and Rosemarie DeWitt play Tim and Lee, a husband and wife who decide to stay in Lee’s client’s palatial home while the client is away for a few weeks. It’s meant to be something of a vacation, some time away from their regular lives. But their regular lives follow them, as they always will, in the form of their son, their financial pressures, and fissures in their marriage. After a short time, Lee decides to leave the house and visit her parents, a vacation from her vacation. In her absence, Tim becomes obsessed with a bone and gun he finds buried in their back yard. He begins digging, against Lee’s wishes, enlisting the help of several old friends.
Throughout the course of the film, we realize that they’re both trying to create or possibly regain something they feel missing in their lives. The painful realization quickly arises that they’re chasing after something unreal. Following a dream of a world that probably never existed. Tim’s digging in the yard becomes the central metaphor, as he starts to wonder if he really even wants to find what he’s looking for.
The performances are unilaterally great. These are all actors who know how to improvise while keeping a scene under control. The performances and especially the emotional moments have a sense of honesty that’s become a trademark of a Joe Swanberg film. Of the plethora of small supporting roles, Mike Bribiglia stands out as one of Tim’s more “responsible” friends, the one that the others see as a fuddy-duddy joykill. Even while they make fun of him, we realize he’s one of the only voices of reason in Tim’s life. It’s also hard to review the film without mentioning the fact that Swanberg’s own son Jude plays the couple’s two-year old, and is just adorable.
The pace will probably be slow for some viewers. I’d say this is more of a credit than a problem. It doesn’t want to dive into the conflicts immediately, dedicated instead to developing the characters so that their discoveries have the appropriate emotional weight. To be effective, the story and characters need time to get under the audience’s skin. When it works, it pays off beautifully. There’s one climactic moment towards the end, one static shot, that is genuinely terrifying. The investment in the characters up to that point is the only reason it works.
It’s no surprise that the actors themselves set a lot of the film’s tone. Because there are so many talented comedic actors involved, there’s more comedy here than in other Swanberg films. Not to the detriment of the story’s drama; there’s a good balance. But you wouldn’t expect a story about marital strife would have so many laugh-out-loud moments.
In a summer full of loud-as-they-can-be unwieldly blockbusters, small, thoughtful films are a breath of fresh air. If you’re feeling the fatigue of bloated ultra-budget tentpoles, do yourself a favor and catch Digging for Fire.