You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Sundance Film Review: ‘Digging for Fire’

Joe Swanberg's starriest picture is a lovely slice of everything and nothing disguised as a murder mystery.

Jake Johnson, Rosemarie DeWitt, Orlando Bloom, Brie Larson, Sam Rockwell, Anna Kendrick, Mike Birbiglia, Jane Adams, Sam Elliott, Judith Light, Ron Livingston, Melanie Lynskey, Megan Mercier.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3704416/

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.

Sundance Film Review: 'Digging for Fire'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 26, 2015. Running time: 83 MIN.

Production: A Forager Film Co. & Webber Gilbert Media Group presentation in association with Dark Arts and Lucky Coffee Prods. of a Garrett Motion Pictures production. (International sales: Dark Arts, New York.) Produced by Joe Swanberg, Jake Johnson, Alicia Van Couvering. Executive producers, Peter Gilbert, Eddie Linker, Chris Webber.

Crew: Directed, edited by Joe Swanberg. Screenplay, Swanberg, Jake Johnson. Camera (color, widescreen), Ben Richardson; music, Dan Romer; music supervisor, Chris Swanson; production designer, Liz Toonkel; art director, Alex Gaines; set decorator, Almitra Corey; sound, Jesse McAlpin; supervising sound editor, Martin Hernandez; re-recording mixer, Jaime Baksht; stunt coordinator, Kyle Weishaar; line producer, Jason Baum; associate producers, Tom Aries, Shelley Fox, Matt Eggers, Tara Eggers, Tom Eggers, Yra Harris, Janice Harris, Breea Klong, Michael Klong, Susie Linker, Dave McKeon, Karen McKeon, Jeanne McInerney, Hartley Meyer, Laura Mizrahi, Caryl Mizrahi, Tamar Stone, Edward Stone, Theresa Snyder, Christopher "CT" Terry; assistant director, Jason Dusenske; casting, Joe Swanberg.

With: Jake Johnson, Rosemarie DeWitt, Orlando Bloom, Brie Larson, Sam Rockwell, Anna Kendrick, Mike Birbiglia, Jane Adams, Sam Elliott, Judith Light, Ron Livingston, Melanie Lynskey, Megan Mercier.

More Film

  • First Look at Cannes-Bound ‘Diego Maradona’

    First Look at Cannes-Bound ‘Diego Maradona’ Feature Documentary

    Diego Maradona waves to raucous Napoli fans before heading into a media scrum and press conference in the first clip from the feature documentary about the soccer superstar. “Diego Maradona” is the third film from the team behind the award-winning “Senna” and “Amy,” with Asif Kapadia directing and James Gay-Rees and Paul Martin producing. They [...]

  • Raising Hell: The Life and Times

    Film Review: 'Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins'

    One of the more entertaining as well as insightful political commentators of the past half-century is paid a suitably entertaining tribute in “Raise Hell.” A long tall Texan too amusingly outrageous to draw real resentment from most of her targets, Molly Ivins nonetheless aimed stinging criticism at political figures both national and in her native [...]

  • The Lighthouse

    Cannes: Directors' Fortnight Unveils Lineup

    Robert Eggers’ anticipated “The Lighthouse” with Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, Luca Guadagnino’s medium-length film “The Staggering Girl” and Japanese helmer Takashi Miike’s “First Love” are set to unspool at Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight under the new leadership of Paolo Moretti. Described by Moretti as a “hypnotic two-hander” powered by Pattinson and Dafoe, “The Lighthouse” is [...]

  • Media Luna Acquires ‘We Had It

    Cannes Festival: Media Luna Takes ‘We Had It Coming,’ ‘The Friendly Man’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    In the run-up to next month’s Cannes Festival, Cologne-based Media Luna New Films has acquired international rights to “We Had It Coming,” starring Natalie Krill (“Wynonna Earp,” “Below Her Mouth”) and Brazil’s “The Friendly Man,” one of the standouts at Ventana Sur’s strong Copia Final showcase of near-finished Latin American movies. MK2 Mile End will [...]

  • ‘Avengers: Endgame’ Stars Make Emotional Speeches

    ‘Avengers: Endgame’ Stars Make Emotional Speeches at Historic Marvel Premiere

    If more than twenty worldwide blockbusters over ten years sounds like a big undertaking, try locking up the cell phones and smartwatches of Hollywood’s most important people for four hours. Only a franchise with the cache of the “Avengers” series could have A-list talent, celebrity fans, agents and executives gladly turn over their gadgets for [...]

  • Avengers: Endgame

    'Avengers: Endgame' First Reactions: 'Most Emotional, Most Epic MCU Film'

    The end is finally here. “Avengers: Endgame” had its world premiere Monday night at the Los Angeles Convention Center and reactions on social media from fans, journalists and critics are already pouring in. The reaction has so far been almost universally positive, with several commentors warning fans of the movie’s emotional elements. Brandon Davis wrote [...]

  • Josh Brolin, Kathryn Boyd. Josh Brolin,

    'Avengers: Endgame's' Josh Brolin: Thanos' Butt Is a 'Beautiful, Purple Peach'

    On the eve of “Avengers: Endgame’s” world premiere, everyone’s thoughts have turned to the one crucial detail that could be the difference between life or death for the Avengers: Does Thanos have a butt? “I don’t know what that whole thing is about! I really don’t!” Josh Brolin, who plays Thanos, told Variety‘s Marc Malkin [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content