In Joe Swanberg’s latest mumblecore production, Digging for Fire, he continues to focus on the complexity of human and intimate relationships. If you’re familiar with Swanberg’s work, you probably have realized that this a major recurring theme in most his films. In Digging for Fire, we explore the complicated essence of relationships after having had children. In the story, both sides of the couple feel unfulfilled with where they are in their lives. The very nature of their relationship has drastically changed with the arrival of their children, and with it, they have lost themselves in it. In one night, each side is given the opportunity to explore other roads they can travel as they are each forced to stare temptation in the face and realize what they truly want out of life.
In Dickensian style, they are each faced with ghosts from their past and future. Each takes a harrowing trip down the proverbial rabbit hole to reach their existential conclusions about their stations in life. In the monotony and responsibility-filled obligations of parenthood, they have lost their sense of excitement in both their relationship and their lives. Rather than spend their couple’s night out together, they each decide to go out on adventures they would have in their pre-relationship eras.
For Tim (Jake Johnson) that includes spending time with an old friends (Sam Rockwell & Ron Livingston) and a new friend (Brie Larson). For his wife (Melanie Lynskey) it includes going out with an old girlfriend (Rosemarie DeWitt) while trying to avoid going home with a new boyfriend (Orlando Bloom). They each are desperately trying to hold on to shadows of their former selves that haven’t existed in years, rather than accepting their new dynamic and evolving as a couple. In the very blunt case of Tim, he is literally digging up skeletons that are much better left alone.
One of the key components of mumblecore films is that many of them are improvised in an attempt to give the conversations a more naturalistic feel. You have to rely heavily on the skills of the actors to keep the conversation interesting and compelling. That is why Swanberg brings back some his veteran actors like Johnson, Kendrick, Lynskey and Livingston. This time around, he also adds higher profile actors like Bloom, Larson and Rockwell to the mix.
The reliance on the improvisational ability of the actors is where a problem could arise. With scripted dialogue, you know exactly what you want and the direction you want the film to head in. Improvising takes you places you never planned for, but sometimes those places aren’t anywhere you particularly wanted to visit. One of the greatest strengths the combined cast possess is their familiarity with comedy. They are able to inject some much needed tonal leavening by introducing several humorous moments. They were a welcomed reprieve.
The quiet development of the story is both a gift and a curse. Digging for Fire‘s leisurely pace actively mimics the slow speed in which our own conversations turn into profundities. The only difference is that we tend to be part of our own conversations, so boredom is rarely an option. Watching everything unfold on-screen can be trying since much of the conversation has the possibility of coming off as mundane. The stodginess recedes once the conversation gets to the weighty ideas they have been slowly building up to making them mostly worth the trip. That is where the pacing can play a big role. For the most part, this film takes its consistently steady pace as we get to know the characters. Then, there is a turn, where the tension increases and the suspenseful elements come into play, saving the film from monotony.
Digging for Fire takes the very real question each couple faces at one point in their relationship and turns it into an adventure into self-affirmation. For better or for worse, the pacing mirrors actual conversations by sacrificing brevity for the philosophical build up. Despite the great performances and comedic accents, the film’s slow-burning nature can (and does) easily overwhelm (or underwhelm) the viewer. Sometimes the very long dig is worth what you were able to recover from it.
RATING: ★★★★★★ (6/10 stars)
Out on Limited Release and VOD