'Digging for Fire': Sundance Review

One of Swanberg's most fully realized outings.

Sometimes marriage is like letting the corpse in the backyard stay buried.

A gentle parable about the compromises required to make a marriage work, Joe Swanberg's Digging for Fire stars Rosemarie DeWitt and Jake Johnson as young parents who flirt with different ideas of themselves while spending a weekend apart. An impressive cast joins the two actors, and while most fly on- and offscreen without much ado, their density matches other production elements to make this one of the prolific but sometimes slapdash filmmaker's most professional efforts. More lightweight than its ample talk of weighty subjects suggests, the film is nevertheless enjoyable and may reach Swanberg's widest audience yet.

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Settling into a swanky house they've borrowed for a few weeks, Tim and Lee (Johnson and DeWitt) quickly find a source of friction: Though he's supposed to be doing their taxes, Tim has puttered around the property and accidentally turned up a rusty old pistol and what could be a bone from a human arm or leg. (Wouldn't you rather try to find a buried skull than collate a year's worth of receipts?)

Mildly exasperated, Lee decides to spend a weekend at her mother's house with the couple's 3-year-old boy Jude (Jude Swanberg, the director's son, who was also in Happy Christmas). She makes Tim promise not to dig up the yard, so he invites some male friends over for grilled meat and what at first promises to be the most square boys' night in movie history. Casual talk of diet plans and pet-burial approaches fills the air, and we're almost to the point at which a Dockers logo should appear onscreen when Ray (Sam Rockwell) arrives, cocaine and girls not far behind. Tim manages not to indulge in either, but he forgets all about that promise to leave the shovel in the shed; he eventually gets help from Max (Brie Larson), who returns the next day for more digging.


Around the time that new friendship is pointing toward temptation, Lee has her own close encounter. In a completely innocent chain of events, she finds herself not having a night on the town with her old friend (Melanie Lynskey) but cruising on a motorcycle with a dashing stranger (Orlando Bloom).

Between and within these unfolding encounters is a lot of unadorned talk about aging, parenthood, the loss of a sense of self while in a relationship, and the like. What's being said will resonate with many in the audience and is of a piece with other recent Swanberg films, but, in a screenplay credited to Swanberg and Johnson, it pops up slightly too often to feel natural. Swanberg has made commendable efforts to make his films more movie-like — here, Ben Richardson's cinematography and Dan Romer's score contribute substantially toward that end — but he still relies on dialogue where he doesn't have to: Having DeWitt's character keep stumbling across the same self-help book about passionate marriages is a perfectly effective way of conveying things she nevertheless puts into words elsewhere.

(Speaking of the cinematography: Who would have thought, from his first 20 or so movies, that Swanberg would be one of the directors shooting on 35 mm now, as so many old-schoolers have resigned themselves to digital?)

Still, the script makes good use of that possible murder scene in the backyard, never spelling out in the script its metaphorical significance. In marriage, Swanberg seems to say, it mightn't be wise to dig at everything until the whole truth comes out. Sometimes a 50-year-old corpse — or a nighttime ride on a handsome man's motorcycle — might be better left undiscussed.

Production companies: Forager Film Company, Webber Gilbert Media Group
Cast: Jake Johnson, Rosemarie DeWitt, Orlando Bloom, Brie Larson, Sam Rockwell, Anna Kendrick
Director-Editor: Joe Swanberg
Screenwriters: Jake Johnson, Joe Swanberg
Producers: Jake Johnson, Joe Swanberg, Alicia Van Couvering
Executive producers: Peter Gilbert, Eddie Linker
Director of photography: Ben Richardson
Production designer: Liz Toonkel
Music: Dan Romer
Sales: Alicia Van Couvering, Dark Arts

No rating, 83 minutes