SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2015
By Don Simpson | February 4, 2015
Director: Joe Swanberg
Writers: Jake Johnson, Joe Swanberg
Starring: Rosemarie DeWitt, Jake Johnson, Brie Larson, Jude Swanberg, Mike Birbiglia, Sam Rockwell, Orlando Bloom, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston, Melanie Lynskey, Sam Elliott, Judith Light, Chris Messina, Timothy Simons, Jenny Slate, Tom Bower, Jane Adams, Steve Berg, Lindsay Burdge
Tim (Jake Johnson), Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt) and their three-year-old son (Jude Swanberg) need a break from their financially-strapped lifestyle in East Los Angeles, so they volunteer to house-sit for one of Lee’s wealthy yoga clients who owns a house in the Hollywood hills. Not long after their arrival, Tim unearths a human bone and rusty gun in the backyard; curiosity gets the better of him, and he wants to keep digging. Lee, on the other hand, does not want Tim to destroy her client’s backyard; she would much prefer that Tim just focus on completing their income tax return.
As the tension between the spouses continues to increase, Lee travels to yet another part of L.A. to spend some quality time with her divorced parents (Sam Elliott, Judith Light) and friends (Ron Livingston, Melanie Lynskey). Meanwhile, Tim decides to enjoy some man-time with his friends (Mike Birbiglia, Sam Rockwell, Steve Berg) whom he eventually convinces to aid in his anthropological excavation. The split narrative rambles onward as Lee and Tim eventually find themselves each drawn toward potential romantic temptations (Orlando Bloom, Brie Larson).
Joe Swanberg’s Digging for Fire cleverly utilizes the sprawling urban landscape of L.A. to provide his protagonists with ample opportunities to escape their situations by merely driving to another neighborhood, with each region serving as its own unique and separate universe. As their lives become increasingly burdened by their young child and financial status, Lee and Tim find themselves perpetually tempted by anything new or better. This partially explains Tim’s obsession with whatever might be buried in the backyard; the chance that it might be the skeletal remains of a murdered human is significantly more exciting than anything else in his life. Tim’s behavior is practically animalistic, as he is fixated on returning to the hole and digging. By obsessively attempting to uncover a buried secret from the past, Tim distracts himself from the immediate stresses of adulthood. Of course the mystery in the backyard also suggests that Lee and Tim’s relationship might have some secrets that are best left buried, or problems that are best not to harp on too much.
As Swanberg has matured as a filmmaker, so has the content of his films; his life has changed drastically since he premiered his first feature, Kissing on the Mouth, ten years ago. Gone are the mumbling existential quagmires of post-grads; now, the balance of marriage, parenthood and identity are what really matter to Swanberg. With Lee and Tim, Swanberg observes the pursuit of maintaining a sense of individuality while keeping the family unit together. Acknowledging that marriage and parenthood revolve around compromises and sacrifices, Swanberg contemplates the effects on the human spirit. Stuck in the un-passionate rut of sameness, nowadays the only subjects that seem to raise Lee and Tim’s pulse rates are preschools and taxes. Will things ever change for either of them?
Saturated with Hollywood actors, Digging for Fire is Swanberg’s first truly Altmanesque ensemble piece, while also serving as an intelligent homage to the recently deceased filmmaker Paul Mazursky (Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, An Unmarried Woman). Despite the assembly line of accomplished actors walking in and out of frame, the film never once loses its low-key, improvisational rhythm. It seems like this cast motivated Swanberg to make his most cinematic film to date, placing significantly more focus on the visual construction and sound design. Digging for Fire — Swanberg’s third collaboration in a row with cinematographer Ben Richardson — is his first foray into shooting on 35mm film. The synthesized score by composer Dan Romer sets a moody and discordant tone that often functions contradictory to the onscreen events, suggesting that we are only seeing what the characters will allow others to see, their real inner drama is being shielded from us.