I have a bit of an uneven relationship with mumblecore pioneer Joe Swanberg. After seeing a good bit of his earlier work (thanks, Mubi!), I found that I didn't like most of it, but could appreciate what he was trying to do. I also came to enjoy several of the actors he used time and again. His early work just didn't click with me in the same way that say, the Duplass Brothers earlier work did. But the comparison between the two is apt because they've both brought their naturalistic, character and improve driven styles to the mainstream with slightly bigger budgets and more well known actors in recent years. The Duplass boys did it with Cyrus and Jeff, Who Lives At Home (both really great movies) and Swanberg did it with Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas. I really enjoyed these last two films from Swanberg, so I was excited to see his new film Digging For Fire, co-written and starring indie darling Jake Johnson (Seriously, look at that face. It is darling). I have to say, I think this film is the best of Swanberg's more recent output. He has an excellent cast together, mixing dark and comedic tones in a fun way. But more than anything, it feels like the most cohesive and whole story he's done.
Tim (Jake Johnson) and Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt) are a married couple with a young son (played surprisingly well by Swanberg's own son Jude), spending a few weeks in the extravagant home of one of Lee's yoga clients. While digging around on the property, Tim discovers a bone and an old rusted 6-shooter on a hill. Lee takes their son to go visit her parents so she can have a night out with friends and Tim can take care of their taxes. However, Tim is immediately obsessed over the possible mystery surrounding the items he found and Lee goes out on her own after he friend bails on her. The two have their own strange and adventurous weekends while contemplating life, marriage, and the current freedom they're no longer used to since their kid arrived. The plot is fairly simple, but the colorful cast of characters and a few well placed subversions make it seem like much more. Like Swanberg's previous films, it clocks in at around 80 minutes, breezing by without overstaying its welcome or leaving you wanting too much more.
This film uses a few Swanberg regulars (Johnson, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston) as well as some welcome new faces (Sam Rockwell and Orlando Bloom) to meditate on the fear and doubts that come with your 30's and a family. Tim becomes obsessed with finding whatever is buried in that hill and briefly distracts himself by hanging out with some old friends he no longer has much in common with. This is all to force some intrigue into his life and avoid doing something as banal as his family's taxes. Lee is searching for her place and is trying to be seen as more than a wife and mother, feeling like she's losing the fire and excitement in her life. While Tim actively ignores the people around him in favor of his new obsession and a string of bad ideas, Lee actually engages with all of the strangers she meets. Whether it's Uber drivers or a handsome new friend, she really talks to people and feels more connected to the world outside of her family, instead of intentionally shutting herself off like Tim does. When they both find what they are looking for, a mystery solved or a human connection made, neither is sure if they really want it anymore and they realize they have to work through life and marriage together. It's actually a very nice story that manages to deal with love, marriage, and freedom in an adult way, without sugarcoating or idealizing it the way most films do.
That's one thing I really like about Digging For Fire, Swanberg's treatment of his main characters. They both have their faults and make questionable choices throughout their respective weekends, but neither one can really be seen as a bad guy in their situation. They are both still independent and can have their own separate stories, but they still wind up the better for having each other. I also really like that no one in the film really has their shit together, with the possible exception of Mike Birbiglia's mutual friend character Phil or Orlando Bloom's suave bar and grill owner Ben (though that second one could just be my Bloom Boner showing...thanks Elizabethtown.) The score from Dan Romer (who also did Beasts of the Southern Wild and Beasts of No Nation, which are completely unrelated films) is uncomfortably ominous at times, even before that kind of music would have a place in the film. It is also equally beautiful when it needs to be, but those early music choices kept me on edge for quite a while, not yet knowing what type of movie this would be, so it was effective to be sure. All of this makes for a really enjoyable movie that ups the charm and sincerity of his previous films. I definitely recommend checking this one out. If you're already a Swanberg fan, you're pretty much guaranteed to dig it and if you're not a fan, this could be the picture to turn you around on him. You can rent it on Amazon to find out for youself.
8 out of 10 Rockwell Rants