“There was something truthful about having my own life again.”
The simplest way you can describe Joe Swanberg’s career as is prolific. In the same breath, the most complex way to deem it as is a head above water, a canned talent with a tightly sealed lid. Swanberg, like a certain Mr. Woody Allen, puts out at least one film a year, often writing his next project while in post-production on the previous. He released six in 2011 alone. And this man loves cinema. He embraces the art form, knows the rules and how to challenge or break them. Never selfishly either. Watch one of his films and you can just tell, “This is a Swanberg movie.” In Digging for Fire, his talent has come full circle with a grip and a grasp strong enough to twist off that lid. To let his unique, offbeat brand carefully and precisely spill onto the screen. The training wheels are off. The helmet cast aside. Swanberg is soaring; his potential has been found.
What can also be said about his filmmaking, until now, is that it was not very good. As one of the founding father’s of the Mumblecore movement, his stories were never complete, and often unshaped and misguided. I guess that’s part of growing up though. Digging for Fire is akin to finally witnessing an aimless, drifting talent hone in on technique and skill. To fine tune his craft. The maturation process, for Swanberg, has been one of being a husband and a father and a filmmaker. It’s an interesting balance and one that has imbued a sense of form and sophistication unseen in his portfolio until now. Digging for Fire isn’t a masterwork, but signals the possible work to come from a possible master of cinema.
We all want to find fire. The question is then, what will stoke it? (That sounded awfully corny, didn’t it?) Anyway, for married couple Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Tim (Jake Johnson), it takes place while housesitting for one of Lee’s celebrity yoga clients. They each dispense the air from their own bellows onto what they seek most. Tim is earthbound; Lee looks to the sky for spirituality. They’re fantastically drawn and played by both actors. A symmetrical yin and yang. Tim walks the property and discovers a bone and a gun. From there he’s an amateur archaeologist. Lee drops their son off at her parent’s home and gets caught up in a girls’ night out to herself. Digging for Fire highlights the importance of individuality. The phrase for that in our technologically driven world is “together alone.” Even in crowds we’re zeroed in on our devices -our worlds- beneath our fingertips. Swanberg wants to stress the importance in having a self-contained personality. We must be able to shape our surroundings as much as we let them mold us.
The man and woman take their own respective journey’s to either self-discovery or enlightenment. Tim is asked to do taxes by his wife, but countering the common phrase, he prefers pursuing, or in this case unearthing, death. Lee is more puzzling, though. We don’t get the sense that she is unhappy, but she’s decidedly more distanced and withdrawn. Digging for Fire is a mysterious family drama with a noir tone meant to outline the path from youth to adulthood, and what it is about ourselves and our environments that usher in the change. Sure, the movie has too small of a storyworld, vacuumed too well to show all of the blemishes or dirty details. But Swanberg’s picture has as much fidelity to this largely improvised movie as the characters have to one another. This is smart cinema. It’s built well with a strong foundation to support the well-rounded cast of side players. Digging for Fire wants to, and is, utterly and entirely itself. Most people could learn a thing or two from that.
“Let’s not make this a crazy drama. Let’s just enjoy this place.”
Rating: 4 out of 5