Watching Digging for Fire, it’s clear almost immediately that this is the film Joe Swanberg has been leading up to. The movie has a maturity to it that is undeniable. The camera is often dead still, absent of visual flourishes. The frame is captured with smooth control on gorgeous 35mm by Ben Richardson, who did photographical wonders as the DP of Beasts of the Southern Wild. The score, by Dan Romer, who also worked on Beasts of the Southern Wild, is a synth-infused marvel, giving depth to scenes that may otherwise have little. And then there’s the cast, of which there isn’t a false note to be found. The opening credits read like a call sheet of the finest talents currently in the game.
These are all things I assessed about Digging for Fire five minutes into its breezy 85-minute run time. I didn’t know what the film was about or where it was going, but I knew it would be wise to care.
Plot isn’t a big part of Swanberg’s films. Actually, very few of his 17 features have any plot at all. Instead, Swanberg’s films are about character, and story. Famously, Swanberg shoots his films with only a brief outline of what the movie will be. The actors improvise all their dialogue, and the footage is edited together (typically by Swanberg himself) to form a coherent narrative.
At its core, Digging for Fire is about a shifting marriage. Though Tim (Jake Johnson) and Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt) seem happy, it’s clear that they’re both, individually, battling the purpose of their matrimony. The couple are house sitting in a glorious abode in the hills around L.A. After a night together, Lee takes their son, Jude (Swanberg’s own son, stealing scenes here as easily as he did in Swanberg’s last film, Happy Christmas), to her parents’ house so that Tim can do their taxes in solitude. The wife is going to watch the kid, the husband is going to settle the taxes. Simple.
Yet neither of those things happen. Instead, Tim finds a bone and an old pistol in the yard, and begins digging for more artifacts incessantly. What could he possibly be looking for? And why? Lee dumps the kid with her parents, and sets out for a night alone, looking for purpose, a connection. When Tim isn’t digging, he has friends over to distract him. There’s Ray (Sam Rockwell) and Billy T (Chris Messina), loners who bring the party to the party, including women (Anna Kendrick and Brie Larson). There’s Phil (Mike Birbiglia), who tries and fails to hold Tim accountable for his potential misdeeds. Lee meets up with people too, including her friends (played by Ron Livingston and the ever-great Melanie Lynskey), who argue about nothing in front of their friends because, well, welcome to life.
These are the people who consume Digging for Fire. The people you’re asked to care about, even if it’s just for a scene. The people you’re supposed to empathize with, to understand, to relate to.
Relatability is a big part of film criticism today. Not a week goes by when I don’t read “Well, I didn’t like the film because I couldn’t relate to any of the characters…” in a review. I’ve never understood that particular brand of criticism. I don’t relate to many of the characters in many of my favorite films, but I still love those movies. Jules Winnfield and I have nothing in common (okay, we both say “motherfucker” a lot), but I still adore Pulp Fiction. I pride myself on sharing no similarities with Hannibal Lecter, but The Silence of the Lambs is still a great film. If you don’t like a movie, you don’t like a movie – fair enough. But not liking a movie simply because you have nothing in common with the characters is shoddy criticism, at best.
I mention this buzz word – relatability – because it’s something Joe Swanberg’s films are criticized a lot for. His characters are too vapid, too whiney, too privileged. Fair points, but just because you may not be any of those things doesn’t mean the entire film is a bust. I often can’t personally relate to Swanberg’s characters. I like some of his films and I dislike others. Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive. Not being able to relate isn’t necessarily bad, but, inversely, being able to relate is always good.
That was Digging for Fire for me. I’ve been these characters. I’ve been the friend with little responsibility who brings the party to the party. I’ve been the couple who awkwardly find themselves in a quiet argument in front of friends. I’ve been the accountable friend who cautions his buddy against temptation. I’ve been the person walking around the city alone, looking for purpose, a connection, something. And I’ve certainly been the guy digging in the ground, trying to find something to latch onto. What was the point of all that digging? What could I have possibly been looking for? Hell, maybe I wasn’t even digging at all. A-