It’s nice to see that as Joe Swanberg is able to attract more robust, big-name casts, his no-frills style of filmmaking still remains focused. Presumably, that’s what drives these actors to collaborate with Swanberg. He gives them a chance to create drama, tension, romance, and – most importantly – a sense of realism, through nothing but sharpened character work. Swanberg forces actors to bring their A-game, which translates into heartfelt and sincere performances yet again in his latest film, Digging For Fire – an exploration of yet another conflicting crossroads that most of us will eventually come to, told with the understanding and beauty of life’s purity.
Jake Johnson and Rosemarie DeWitt star as a couple in need of some relief, so they seek sanctuary at a desolate hideaway owned by one of Lee’s (DeWitt) clients. Tim (Johnson) should be spending the weekend finalizing taxes, but when Lee leaves him alone to his own devices, he ends up obsessing over a rusted gun and a human bone he finds buried on the plot of land. With the help of a few buddies, Tim ends up excavating the dirty hillside with the hope that a buried body might be hidden underneath the seemingly serene landscape. But while the couple is separated, they both meet members of the opposite sex who give them a taste of what they’ve been missing. Will this spell an end to their loving relationship, or simply begin a new chapter in their adult lives?
The beauty of Digging For Fire is the simplicity that Joe Swanberg and Jake Johnson discover in their script while addressing feelings with a much bigger impact. There’s no overcomplicating Tim and Lee’s familial situation – both parents are absolutely head-over-heels in love with their son Jude (Jude Swanberg), but daily parenting has caused a distraction that takes away from their own relationship. Tim and Lee’s own bond of romance has taken a backseat to the livelihood of Jude, who they both care for on a tremendously invested level. Swanberg commemorates those who selflessly bring a child into the world, but also addresses the sacrificial nature of parenthood that raises questions in so many uncertain mommies and daddies. It’s both a testament and reassurance that doubt and uncertainty in these times are just part of the territory, which could be the most human – and honest – element of Digging For Fire.
Swanberg’s collective cast of equally confused adults all add their own level of combative thinking, from Sam Rockwell’s empty party-boy to Mike Birbiglia’s more reserved, responsible influence. The ensemble is overloaded with big names like Anna Kendrick, Brie Larson, Orlando Bloom, Melanie Lynskey, and Ron Livingston (the list goes on), but their only task is to offer brief comparison points to showcase the lives that Tim and Lee once knew.
Tim pines for his wilder, freer years with buddies played by Rockwell and Chris Messina, while Lee finds herself intoxicated by a sweet, innocent attraction from Bloom’s smooth operator. These characters enter Digging For Fire for only a few minutes each (which is long enough for Messina to go full-frontal nude), but they make the most of their shortened interactions given how natural the dialogue feels. It’s most certainly Johnson and DeWitt’s show to steal (even though Joe Swanberg’s son Jude commands EVERY scene he’s in), and the two devoted lovers turn our fears into an enjoyable chemistry, but the most powerful moments in Digging For Fire are comprised of nothing but shrugs, empty admittances of normalcy, and seemingly everyday conversations that hold a much more serious weight.
Yet there’s something slighter about Digging For Fire than Swanberg’s previous efforts. Running under 90 minutes, we spend very little time with most of the characters we meet, and that includes Swanberg’s happy couple. If you blink, you’ll probably miss Anna Kendrick’s appearance. The entire movie flies by, which isn’t a BAD thing considering how long some butt-numbers feel, but it’s also a bit weightless. And that’s not to blame Tim’s obsession with his mystery corpse – a representation of the excitement in his life that was eventually buried under responsibility and caretaking. It’s a strange and inventive way to show how such a random act could carry life-affirming consequences, but the film feels like it’s over as it begins. There’s no surprises or shocks along the way – just a bright story about the many stages of love.
Digging For Fire is about acceptance. Accepting who we are, accepting our responsibilities, and accepting the notion that time moves on whether we like it or not. But it’s a reminder not to fight maturity as we watch late nights filled with alcohol and bad decisions turn into even later nights involving cribs, crying, bottles, and the new love of your life. Life is busy. Life is chaos. Sometimes we need a spark to set something off in us that we forgot. That’s what Digging For Fire is about – reminders. They’re part of our everyday lives, and all we have to do is look for them.