As an indie filmmaker and one of the founders of the mumblecore movement, Joe Swanberg (Kissing on the Mouth, Drinking Buddies) has always gravitated to the space between words, to the things left unsaid between people who say they’re in love. In Digging for Fire, a mesmerizing, millennial spin on Ingmar Bergman’s five-hour Scenes From a Marriage — but way shorter at 83 minutes — Swanberg is swimming in symbolism. Don’t panic. The movie steps lively with buoyant humor and palpable sexual tension, but keep an eye out for the dark places.
New Girl‘s Jake Johnson, who co-wrote the deft script with Swanberg, plays Tim, currently housesitting in the Hollywood hills with wife Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt) and their three-year-old (Jude Swanberg, the director’s son). Lee, an aerobics instructor, has moved in as a favor to a client. Tim, who’s a gym teacher at a public school, is supposed to do the family taxes, receipts laid out on the table like dreary stand-ins for marital responsibility. Instead, he procrastinates, takes a walk around the house and digs up — metaphor alert — a gun and a human bone. Suddenly, mystery is in the air and a whiff on menace.
Lee refuses to join her hubby in a dig for earthly remains. She takes off with the kid to see her parents and finds herself on the town with a hunky stranger (Orlando Bloom). Tim stays at the house, inviting over guy pals, including reliable Phil (Mike Birbiglia) and crazy Ray (Sam Rockwell). Also showing up are two women: Alicia (Anna Kendrick), on hand to jump half naked into the pool; and Max (Brie Larson) who helps Tim dig and returns the next day for a date that dangerously skirts infidelity. Swanberg cuts these two dangerous liaisons together to the bounce of “Li’l Red Riding Hood” by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. A perfect tease.
Questions of sex, identity, aging, and the shifting parameters of marriage and parenthood all come up for consideration. Swanberg detractors will bitch as usual about the loose, improv feelings that rise up and never quite land. But the provocations are intriguing and the acting sublime. Johnson, so good in Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies, manages to take us inside Tim’s head and heart. His scenes with the reliably superb DeWitt radiate a sweet sadness. Ditto the movie. Beautifully shot in 35mm by the gifted Ben Richardson (Beasts of the Southern Wild) to a hypnotic synth score by Dan Romer, Digging for Fire goes to the tantalizing edge of revelation and leaves us there to filter what we saw through the prism of our own strengths and weaknesses. I’d call that the mark of a true filmmaker.