Improvised, corkscrewed dialogue and loose body language. The mumblecore moniker wraps itself around director Joe Swanberg’s existential opus about the suppressed desires of a modern adult couple. The contemporary malaise of thirty-somethings has been explored, ad nauseam, recently. Here, however, we are not tracing the lines of a disheveled manchild whose confidence bobs and weaves through a plume of weed smoke. Swanberg’s characters, a couple named Tim (Jake Johnson) and Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt), are both relatively affable and financially stable mastheads. They have weathered storms before, and will find the strength to do so again.
When the aforementioned husband and wife house sit for an affluent client, they find themselves in the throes of food, conversation, and obligatory laziness. This ordinary interplay changes, though, when Tim unearths a rusted gun and a soil encrusted bone on their property. What else is buried near this house? Is there an unsolved crime under their feet? After Lee leaves to see her family, Tim becomes Richard-Dreyfus-in-Close-Encounters-obsessed with finding the truth.
Coming off of the prosaic and placid narrative of Happy Christmas, Swanberg isn’t exactly hitting in the front half of the order. Paired with actor Jake Johnson’s abysmal Lets Be Cops, this writing team could have been working with anemic levels of quality. Here, the bucket was dangerously close to hitting the bottom of a dry well.
With Digging for Fire, there is more of a story than the washed out chalk lines of Happy Christmas. Swanberg and Johnson manage to tap into primordial desires, the self-imposed affliction of repetition compulsion, and the inability to reconcile with happiness. Though the metaphorical riptides can be overwhelming, there is no doubt that our writers are pulling back tightly on the bowstrings. That said, not all of the exchanges work, and some of the dialogue caves in on itself. Ron Livingston talking about Costa Rica travel plans, over the tenuous flicker of a candle, could not be less engaging. Most of the time, though, the muted reverie of existentialist malaise works. Adults bucking heads with suppressed desires and bridled dreams. If these vanilla troubles were wedged into a dull, uninspired shoe box, you would have found yourself with a sort of wet pate of white noise. Luckily, Swanberg was able to Barry Sanders sidestep those innocuous trappings.
With a veritable who’s who of actors, Digging for Fire could have come off as a $30 version of Valentine’s Day or I Love You, New York. Strangely, every player has something to bring to the film. From Orlando Bloom’s damaged lothario to Sam Rockwell’s turn as Tim’s bedraggled buddy, there is a purpose and motive (intentional or not, there is also something desperately funny about Rockwell dressing like 2003 Dave Attell).
Brie Larson’s reserved roll as a shovel wielding guest is small, but every time she is on screen she ignites the film into a contained blaze of coolness. The self-assured mannerisms of Larson, from the slinging of dirt to the cradling of cigarette, move with the rhythm of a jazz soloist. She is truly the pulse of Swanberg’s film. There is one particular scene between Larson and Jake Johnson that may be my favorite sequence in a film all year.
Digging for Fire – now playing at Reading Gaslamp – circumvents the cold oatmeal palate of typical mumblecore films, and survives with a dose of levity, self-awareness, and intense doubt. Coupled with a woozy, crestfallen score that borrows tones from Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire”, this is a small film that deserves to be seen on the big screen.