There’s something really pleasurable about watching a new act in a filmmaker’s career. With his new movie Digging for Fire, multi-hyphante Joe Swanberg has fully emerged from his mumblecore beginnings and become an incredibly nimble writer and director. His early works like Hannah Takes the Stairs or Nights and Weekends established his simple aesthetic, but it’s been lately with films like Drinking Buddies, Happy Christmas, and now this one that he’s been able to wed his independent sensibilities with bigger (by comparison) stories. Digging for Fire, perhaps even more so than those last two flicks, shows just how interesting a filmmaker Swanberg has become. This time around, he’s balancing indie comedy/dramedy with a meditation on middle age malaise as well as a touch of mystery…perhaps even a murder mystery, though that’s for you to find out. Working with his starriest cast ever, which includes Orlando Bloom, Rosemarie DeWitt, Brie Larson, and Sam Rockwell as well as returning players from his recent works Jake Johnson (who co-wrote the script with Swanberg), Anna Kendrick, and Ron Livingston, Swanberg makes this a true ensemble piece, slowly expanding the cast of characters. It’s perhaps a bit too ambitious for its own good at times, but more often than not, Digging for Fire is excellent entertainment. The more I see Swanberg grow, the more excited I get for what he chooses to do next.
Married couple Tim (Johnson) and Lee (DeWitt) are more or less your standard married couple. They have a young son named Jude (Jude Swanberg, Joe’s real life son) and live a comfortable life in California. Tim is a gym teacher and Lee is a yoga instructor who lucks into a client of hers offering them a huge house in the Hollywood Hills to stay at all summer. They pack up and head for this extended vacation, but it’s not the quiet getaway they expected. They’re in the midst of a continued disagreement over whether Jude should go to public or private school, while Lee is also on Tim to stop putting off doing their taxes. When Tim finds a bone and a rusted gun in the backyard, he becomes obsessed with if a murder took place there and if a body is buried somewhere on the grounds, leading Lee to opt for a weekend back home with Jude and her parents. Also, it’s just a chance to get away and be alone for the first time in forever. Tim invites his friends over for beers and shenanigans, including Phil (Mike Birbiglia), Ray (Rockwell), Billy (Chris Messina), Max (Larson) and Alicia (Kendrick). They all help Tim dig a bit, but mostly are more interested in partying than the potential mystery, except for Max, who seems as intrigued by Tim as anything else and hangs with him more. Back home, Lee goes out for the evening and meets Ben (Bloom), which opens all sorts of questions in her mind about who she is and if she’s a wife and mother or just a woman still in her prime. I won’t spoil what happens, but it’s both very simple and surprisingly satisfying.
As you’d expect with a big cast like this, there’s a ton of nice performances to take note of. Jake Johnson and Rosemarie DeWitt are the co-leads here, and as such have the most screen time, but they’re hardly the only ones doing solid work in the picture. DeWitt and Johnson make for a believable married couple, while they both have some very cute scenes with Jude Swanberg, who of course stole the show in Happy Christmas. He’s adorable here as well, which is no surprise, though I would have enjoyed more of him in this one. DeWitt puts a new spin on the potentially unhappy wife, while Johnson lets these interesting notes of dark obsession tinge his otherwise loose and amusing performance. Among the more fully fleshed out co-stars, Orlando Bloom, Brie Larson, and Sam Rockwell get the most to do, as they interact with DeWitt and Johnson the most. Bloom is flirtatious but not exactly a temptation for DeWitt in the expected way, while the same could be said for Larson in relation to Johnson. I did want to see more from her, but that’s just due to how talented she is. Rockwell gets to let loose, making for a bit of a scene stealing supporting turn. The aforementioned Mike Birbiglia, Ron Livingston, and Chris Messina are cute in their small roles, while Anna Kendrick is a bit underused, but plays someone enjoyable in her own right. Also on hand in small parts are Jane Adams, Tom Bower, Sam Elliot (also to be seen this week in the terrific Grandma), Melanie Lynskey, Timothy Simons, Jenny Slate, and more, making for an all around top notch ensemble.
Digging for Fire is easily Joe Swanberg’s best looking film to date, which is a credit to cinematographer Ben Richardson, an underrated DP in the industry. Swanberg’s direction is crisp and suggests a thriller at times, partially due to the score by composer Dan Romer, even if the script he co-wrote with Johnson only pays lip service to that. This is still the loose and playful kind of movie Swanberg specializes in, but there’s an edge to it that you might not expect. In some ways, it hurts him because it raises expectations, but once you understand the type of flick he has in mind here, it works. This is an ambitious project, so if it only works 90% of the time (mainly due to a length that seems ever so slightly rushed for the amount of characters on display), that still makes it a pretty successful outing for him. Again, I can’t wait to see what he does next.
If you’re a fan of Swanberg, especially his latest works, then Digging for Fire should be right up your alley. It actually might be the best merging of his old mumblecore ways and his new more star studded stories, which isn’t an accident, I’m sure. If you’re looking for a strong indie comedy in general, one with a dark underbelly that shows from time to time, you can’t go wrong with this one. It’s not quite a great film, but it is a very good one. I always enjoy Swanberg, so Digging for Fire is no exception to that, though it offers something new to audiences, and I’m all for that.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!