“Why don’t we keep digging?”
There’s an old adage that says, “sometimes you go digging, and all you get is dirty.” That sentiment seems to be at the heart of Joe Swanberg’s latest film, Digging For Fire. The tale of a marriage in the midst of an identity crisis offers the mumblecore kingpin a chance to paint on a wider emotional canvas than ever before.
Tim (Jake Johnson) and Lee (Rosemary Dewitt) are having problems. Prone to petty bickering at the slightest provocation, it’s impossible not to see them pulling away from each other. But they are trying to keep their marriage together for the sake of their 3 year old son, Jude (Swanberg’s own son, Jude), the gorilla glue to their relationship. The couple hope that a swanky house-sitting gig and time away from their everyday grind will help them rediscover their passion. When a rusty pistol and what appears to be human bones are found buried in the backyard, Tim and Lee have very different thoughts on how to handle the predicament.
That may seem like a clever set up for a madcap murder mystery, but Swanberg has something far trickier in mind. When Lee takes Jude to see her parents for the weekend, the couple set off on separate extramarital adventures as Digging For Fire explores the question of how much self can exist in a relationship.
There’s not much more to the plot and that’s just fine. Swanberg has never been a filmmaker concerned with plot. You’d be hard pressed to find one in any of his previous films. Instead, the director has focused more on establishing a feeling rather than tell a story. Proximity connections and singular attractions have always been at the center of Swanberg’s universe and that remains true in Digging For Fire. Working from a screenplay co-written with Johnson, the film finds a unique balance between the director’s established, naturalistic style and newly discovered sense of grandeur. As with Swanberg’s previous films, dialogue is largely improvised, but the writers have tethered that improvisational feeling to a story that brings just enough structure to give the film a polished, layered feel.
Much of that polish comes at the hands of cinematographer Ben Richardson, working for a third time with Swanberg on Digging for Fire. Their previous films, Drinking Buddies (2013) and Happy Christmas (2014) saw Swanberg embracing a little thing called style. Static images, fuzzy lighting and that, “I made this all by myself” feeling suddenly gave way to expressive camera angles and crisp imagery in Richardson’s hands. The new layer of storytelling raised Swanberg’s deeply felt narrative style into something more deeply experienced. Digging for Fire sees the duo adding camera movement to the mix with a handful of profoundly affecting long shots that add a jazzy, Altmanesque feel to the proceedings. The effect is nothing short of transcendent.
There’s another element altogether new in Swanberg’s film...gasp…an original score. While songs have traditionally played an important part in Swanberg’s oeuvre, music has always come from an on-screen source. Employing Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) composer Dan Romer is the coupe-de-gras that raises Digging for Fire from good indie to must-see cinema. Symbolism abounds throughout Digging as Tim quite literally digs himself into a hole while Lee digs a more metaphorical one. Romer’s alternately synthey/thumphing compositions add an unnerving layer to the film as the story approaches increasingly metaphysical territory. While Romer is happy to lead you into this dodgy quarter, composer and director instinctively know when to pull the music and the story back toward reality. A man trying on a shoe can be emotionally devastating, but at the end of the day he may just be trying on a shoe.
Words, music and images are practically irrelevant if the acting isn’t on point. Luckily, performance is Swanberg’s bread and butter. Leading the way as the couple-in-crisis are Rosemarie DeWitt and Jake Johnson. The actors share roughly five minutes of screen-time, but they make skillful use of their scenes. The stakes in this film are only as important as the relationship they effect, after all. It’s a testament to their abilities that we are actively invested in the relationship even though we get barely a glimpse into it.
I’ve come to expect a level of depth from DeWitt over the years with stellar turns in Your Sister’s Sister (2011) and Touchy, Feely (2013). She’s again solid here as Lee, a modern woman desperate to define herself in the wake of motherhood. It’s Johnson that’s a bit of a revelation, though. Setup as an affable-doofus akin to his character in TV’s New Girl, Johnson finds a surprising emotional depth in Tim who, underneath that goofy facade, is just a guy a little too attached to a not-so-distant bachelor self.
These compelling performances are enhanced by a veritable Wrecking Crew of talent from the indie-movie scene. Brie Larson, Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Sam Rockwell, Ron Livingston, Chris Messina and Orlando Bloom help fill Digging for Fire‘s nooks and crannies adding a playful vibe that teeters ever on the edge of danger. Aging character actors Tom Bower and Sam Elliot are supporting standouts in key moments of deference for Tim and Lee respectively, bringing stodgily simple perspectives to the complicated matters at hand.
Simplicity is the key for Digging for Fire, even in its complications. As a story, it’s firmly in Swanberg’s wheelhouse. As a film it’s a bold new direction as the filmmaker fleshes out a sense of style to match his themes. That all adds up to Swanberg making his most complete film yet. Love, parenthood and what it means to grow up are subjects increasingly present in Swanberg’s work. One can’t help but think that becoming a father himself has forever altered his take on reality. Like his protagonists in Digging for Fire, Swanberg is a ready to grow up and it’s an absolute joy to watch.