Movie Review: ‘DIGGING FOR FIRE’ – A Bittersweet Exploration of Modern Marriage


Cole Clay // Film Critic

DIGGING FOR FIRE | 85  min | R
Director: Joe Swanberg
Cast: Jake Johnson, Rosemarie DeWitt, Brie Larson, Mike Birbiglia, Sam RockwellSteve Berg, Anna Kendrick, Chris Messina, Sam Elliott, and Orlando Bloom

DIGGING FOR FIRE isn’t that far off from director Joe Swanberg’s other films. Put a particular subset of average middle Americans in a room, having riffing conversations on life’s biggest questions, and there you go.

Like his last two – and frankly more commercial films – DRINKING BUDDIES and HAPPY CHRISTMAS, Swanberg finds authenticity within the human condition by way of the “happy accident” and low-key comedic beats with some of Hollywood’s hippest character actors.

Anticipating all the stars is part of the fun of seeing how Swanberg will use their talents, often times in unexpected ways. It’s not spoiler of their presence, but you have Sam Rockwell, Ron Livingston, Brie Larson, Melanie Lynsky, Mike Birbiglia, Anna Kendrick and the one, the only ruggedly handsome Orlando Bloom sweeping in during the second act complete with man-bun.

Like Woody Allen, Swanberg has been on a one-picture-a-year since he has somewhat departed from the true mumble core style that launched his career nearly a decade ago.  While the two filmmakers have an impervious knack for not letting the ever-changing industry effect their art, Swanberg uses different techniques than Allen. Hoever, the two are maverick directors who are continually playing with the form and finding new ways for their players to break new moral ground with their characters.

From Left To Right Tim (Jake Johnson) & Lee (Rosemarie Dewitt) parting ways before the adventure begins.

Tim (Jake Johnson) and Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt) parting ways before the adventure begins. Photo courtesy of The Orchard.

DIGGING FOR FIRE inflates the neurosis and worry that comes with marriage, without ever making the nuggets of wisdom overwrought. The story revolves around married couple – Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt), a yoga instructor, and Tim (Jake Johnson, also co-writer), a public school gym teacher – who get away for the weekend in the wooded hills of Malibu, California in an old yet elegant cabin. They worry about whether or not to borrow money from Lee’s mother and stepfather, getting their son into a good pre-K, and Tim procrastinating on doing their taxes. They don’t spend much time together on-screen, yet the two have an epicenter of love that is apparent and authentic in an effortless way that has a sense of tedium and slides into a medley of moments between the core that provide the audience enough context to care.

Tim delves into a bizarre project of digging for a dead body after he discovers some peculiar objects in the back yard, including a bone and a rusty old gun. He also smokes pot and gets some bro-time in while he can. Lee, takes the kid to the grandparents house while she attempts to spend a night out on the town. In the 24-hour period of separation, the couple do more work on their marriage and find new ways to communicate without ever being face-to-face. Swanberg is clearly an optimist when it comes to the idea of partnership– not that his subjects’ marriage was on the rocks, but he crafts a bit a magic with their chemistry.

As the narrative spool unwinds Swanberg takes us on a bit of an adventure of sorts with this couple. They learn about their own lives through the conversations with friends, family and sometimes strangers. What works best about DIGGING FOR FIRE is the tight, often funny and loosely scripted film that relies on the choices of the actors in the moment rather than shoehorning false moments of unearned conclusions. Swanberg is buy and large, one of the more trustworthy filmmakers who’s clearly wanting to change his form with each project, even in the most modest sense, which is kind of perfect for a filmmaker in search of life’s seemingly most meaningless truths.

DIGGING FOR FIRE expands in theaters tomorrow.
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Our video interview with Jake Johnson and Steve Berg:

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About author

James C. Clay

James Cole Clay has been working as a film critic for the better part of a decade covering new releases, blu ray reviews and the occasional drive-in cult classic. His writing is dedicated to discovering social politics through diverse voices, primarily focusing on Women In Film and LGBTQ cinema.