The unearthing of a rusty gun and dirty bone from a backyard bank seems like a surface setup to a murder mystery, but as the latest entry in Joe Swanberg’s oeuvre, “Digging for Fire” has an ulterior motive. Swanberg has always explored relationship dynamics in his films, from long-distance challenges (“LOL,” “Nights and Weekends”) to ambiguous workplace romances (“Hannah Takes the Stairs,” “Drinking Buddies”), but none of his films have been as symbolically meaningful or emotionally mature as this one.
“Digging” finds Swanberg taking a different narrative tack by pitting Jake Johnson against Rosemarie DeWitt in an adventure tale about marriage, parenthood, and complacency. Tim (Johnson) and Lee (DeWitt) are a married couple with a three-year-old son named Jude (Jude Swanberg), house-sitting for a colleague in the country for a weekend. Tim is disillusioned about his relationship with Lee, which is only being kept alive thanks to Jude — whereas Lee is preoccupied with Tim’s immature tendencies and the idea that their marriage has already lost its passion.
The two are distant and prone to squabbling, so when an opportunity arises for them to separate for a weekend, the events that arise take them on separate journeys in which they contemplate their future together. When Tim happens upon the gun and bone buried in a dirt bank in the home’s backyard, it’s the beginning of a reckless quest and a macabre discovery. As Lee takes Jude for the weekend to her parents’ home, she embarks on her own exploratory escapade with the help of a handsome stranger (Orlando Bloom).
Symbolism abounds: Tim is literally digging himself into a hole trying to uncover an old mystery, while Lee explores extramarital life with a different man, and the externalization of these pursuits is their way of physically removing themselves from the context of their marriage in order to work out their internal conflicts. Their dueling narrative highlights the often-competing dynamics of modern relationships, and splits the traditional idea of a union in half to examine the collaborative efforts that go into making the union work as a whole. It’s refreshing to see this analytical framework take on a mature dimension in comparison to Swanberg’s other, looser works.
Backed by an alternately wistful and thumping synth-driven score courtesy of Dan Romer (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”), “Digging for Fire” is also a welcome departure from the talky, naturalistic quality that has defined Swanberg’s oeuvre to date. He still incorporates the idea of the fantasy indie hangout crew — by assembling Jake Johnson, Sam Rockwell, Chris Messina, Mike Birbiglia, Anna Kendrick, and Brie Larson into a sprawling ensemble drama — but overall the film has less of a chummy camaraderie vibe than usual, eschewing idle chatter for purposeful, plot-driven performances.
It’s a surprisingly accessible and polished approach, one that suggests the beginning of a new phase of larger-scale filmmaking for Swanberg. The movie delivers a bewitching dissection of happiness and unhappiness in love. “Digging for Fire” is a promising peek into the future of Swanberg, and one that only signals more to come.
“Digging for Fire” premiered last weekend at the Sundnace Film Festival. It was recently acquired for U.S. distribution by The Orchard.