Joe Swanberg continues his march toward the mainstream even as he deepens his signature brand of hangout film in “Digging for Fire,” a lovely slice of everything and nothing centered on a housesitting couple who discover possible evidence of a murder. There are feints toward a bona fide mystery plot, but that genre element is just a pretext for a stealth marital drama, held together through strong improv, tight editing (by Swanberg himself), moody cinematography and a synth score (from Dan Romer) that parties like it’s 1991. This is Swanberg’s starriest picture to date — even if some appearances, like Jenny Slate’s, amount to glorified walk-ons — making breakout success eminently possible.
Concerning the adventures of married parents Tim (co-screenwriter Jake Johnson) and Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt), “Digging for Fire” opens with the two of them and their son, Jude (played by Swanberg’s toddler, Jude, the finest comic of his young generation), arriving at a house in the hills that belongs to one of Lee’s clients, who’s off shooting a movie. In a catalyzing incident that Johnson has said was inspired by a real-life experience, Tim discovers a rusty revolver and a bone on the premises. The LAPD brushes him off, instructing him to call back if he finds an actual body, but his desire to shovel further creates a bit of tension with his wife, who doesn’t want to do anything that might upset the house’s owner. The chasm between the spouses yawns a bit more, albeit subtly, when Lee goes off with Jude to visit family for a couple of days and Tim stays behind at the house.
Tim is supposed to be doing the family’s taxes, but Lee knows he’s probably partying. Indeed he is: At his macho, alcohol-fueled gathering, the guests include Phil (Mike Birbiglia), Ray (Sam Rockwell) and eventually Max (Brie Larson) and Alicia (Anna Kendrick). Fascinated by the possible murder in the backyard (at least when they can tear themselves away from the pool), they help Tim dig a bit (but not too much). The plot almost suggests a version of Joe Dante’s “The ‘Burbs” that refuses to switch into high gear. In a wryly funny interlude, a neighbor stops by to hint to Tim that what’s buried there is really, really bad — and then is never heard from again.
If you know Swanberg, you know the mystery is just something he can return to whenever the cast’s improvised chatter isn’t sufficiently interesting. Fortunately, most of it is, or at least has been edited with such crispness that it holds attention. In some ways, the film reps a mature replay of his “Drinking Buddies” (2013), which also concerned characters tempted to infidelity but unlikely to act.
Max returns in the daytime and helps Tim, who works in public schools but has taken to donning a call-me-hip leather jacket, with the excavation. Soon the two arrange to grab dinner in a manner that looks suspiciously like a date. Elsewhere, after visiting her mother (Judith Light), stepdad (Sam Elliott) and friend (Melanie Lynskey), Lee goes to a fancy bar for a burger and ends up fighting off an aggressive flirtation with the help of Ben (Orlando Bloom), who gets in a fight for her. They hit it off after Lee takes him to Alicia’s home to get stitches.
These not-quite dalliances come to a head in a crosscutting sequence scored to “Li’l Red Riding Hood” by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs; it may be the most kinetic bit Swanberg has yet directed. If early works like “Hannah Takes the Stairs” and “Uncle Kent” sometimes seemed queasily committed to testing the boundaries of screen intimacy, the director has abandoned his trademark prurience and now regards his characters with a productive distance. There’s something Altmanesque about Swanberg’s fascination with the behavior on the margins of the story; the L.A. mystery without the mystery occasionally makes “Digging for Fire” feel like an ultra-low-key cousin to “The Long Goodbye.”
For a filmmaker who owes his career to digital cameras, Swanberg is also blessedly in touch with the medium’s history. “Digging for Fire” was shot in 35mm by Ben Richardson, who lensed the director’s “Drinking Buddies” and “Happy Christmas” as well as “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” The pic looks sensational, especially in the night scenes, not only in its lush survey of Tim and Lee’s swank temporary pad, but also in the digging scenes, in which Richardson populates the wide frame with searing lamp light from odd angles. At his Sundance Q&A, Swanberg cited Steven Spielberg as an unlikely influence. You can also see touches that owe everyone from Lawrence Kasdan to Michael Mann.
Stylistically, the pic has little in common with “Unexpected,” the Sundance competition title from Swanberg’s wife, Kris, although that film’s co-writer, Megan Mercier, has a small role here as an Uber driver.