Digging for Fire Feature

Digging for Fire Review: Trying to Find Fun in Adulthood

Friday, September 04, 2015 Rob Samuelson

Digging for Fire

Director: Joe Swanberg
Writers: Jake Johnson, Joe Swanberg
Starring: Jake Johnson, Rosemarie DeWitt, Brie Larson, Orlando Bloom
Rating: Four stars out of five
Available in limited release and on-demand now.

Anyone can go on a quest. The destination doesn't always matter – sometimes the mere fact that it's happening can make all the difference in the world. It can make you feel better, like you have a purpose, even when you're otherwise feeling stuck. But mostly, quests for quests' sake can be distractions from the necessary hard work of being a responsible adult.

That is what Jake Johnson's Tim and Rosemarie DeWitt's Lee learn in Digging for Fire. They are staying at a house owned by a rich client of Lee's. Tim, feeling insecure about the money he makes as a public school teacher, sulks off on his own while Lee and their young son play around the property. On the back hill behind the house, Tim finds a bone and a rusty old handgun. The mystery eats at him. What happened here? He annoys Lee with his amateur detective impression before she requests that he leave it be. She's wiped out and needs a break. She takes their son to her parents' house for the weekend and plans a night out with an old friend. Tim gets the big stranger's house to himself, and he is tasked with doing the couple's taxes over the long weekend.

The taxes sit on the kitchen table, a messy tangle of forms and crinkled receipts. Tim looks at them with contempt and apprehension, things getting in the way of his discovery. But he promised he would not delve any deeper into the possible cold case in his temporary back yard, so he must procrastinate a new way. He invites some friends over for a barbecue. Drinks flow and beautiful, years-younger girls (played by Brie Larson and Anna Kendrick) show up, ready to be impressed. Naturally, the quest goes back in action, with other pieces of evidence popping up with every shovelful of dirt.

Lee's night gets progressively more disappointing, with canceled plans and the sob stories of her Uber drivers not having their intended effect of making her feel better about her own situation.

This is when Digging for Fire becomes, on the surface, a more conventional character drama. But there is more going on underneath that reveal more depth. Temptations and near misses complicate already present feelings of inadequacy and run-of-the-mill boredom. Director Joe Swanberg, a veteran of the Mumblecore scene of DIY filmmaking, shoots things with a much greater sense of visual purpose than he has before. While there are conversations that highlight the feelings characters have about each other, the way Swanberg's camera holds on the actors' faces tells the story much better than any lines of dialogue could. The uncommented upon tax pile he returns to a couple times serve as a reminder of oppressive reality that should be centering Tim, but he is off adventuring and solving the murderous puzzle in the backyard. A late night trip to the beach for Lee, which includes a look at Saturn through a telescope, help her understand the silliness of her complaints about her life situation.

There are conflicted feelings inside these characters. The ways they come to a head are conflicted, too. Each member of the couple makes a choice to do something possibly marriage-destroying. One, however, gets a deus ex machina in the form of an old friend to get in the way of the poor decision making. The other immediately has a change of heart upon making a bad choice. On one level, it could be seen as highly unfair to one of them. A plot contrivance keeps one member of the marriage free of any real guilt, but the other is stuck feeling bad for what is technically a lesser offense. On the other hand, the “saved” character seemingly has no qualms about making a much worse transgression, and is upset about not being “allowed” to go through with it. All the while the other member realizes such a decision would be bad for all involved.

All this sounds like Digging for Fire is a dour piece of doom cinema. It's not. There is a sense of fun hanging over most of it. It has a playfulness to the scenes with Tim and his friends excavating the crime scene that recalls Stand By Me, but for guys in their 30s who might be getting a little pudgy in the middle. The back-and-forth between Tim and Lee is filled with jokes – they enjoy each other's presence. And that is the point of the film. When these characters are together, they bounce off each other in a way that makes the not-so-fun parts of adulthood a little more bearable. It's so easy to forget that when they're apart, with all the noise that enters their lives for this brief weekend. But noise is all it is. There's grace in that.

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