By Jacob Wampfler
In my experience, it’s a rare occurrence for a film small in scope and low in stakes to tackle weighty and existential issues. Joe Swanberg’s Digging for Fire does exactly that. The main characters are a husband, wife, and their son. They are spending a weekend house-sitting for a friend in a much nicer house than their own. While exploring the property, Tim (Jake Johnson) finds a gun and bone half buried in the hillside behind the house. He wants to keep digging to find more, but his wife Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt) disapproves of the idea. She leaves for the rest of the weekend with their son, while Tim is left to (she hopes) complete their taxes.
Small scope, low stakes. From the outset, this might sound like a film about almost anyone. A strength of the mumblecore genre, in which Joe Swanberg feels right at home, real human interaction is paramount. The viewer can relate to the words being spoken on screen; one can feel the anxieties, pressures, and concerns of the main characters. In this sense, Tim grounds the film for the viewer. While it is, in fact, linear from a narrative perspective, it feels much more like a stream of consciousness as characters wander on and off screen, in and out of one another’s lives. In many ways Tim is the only fixed point, and his obsession with the bone and gun found in the hillside create the central driving force of the film.
The more this film sits with me, the more I am fascinated by the use of the bone, gun, and the action of digging in this film. Tim is slavishly dedicated to his self-proclaimed mission of uncovering anything else that might lead to answers. The viewer is pulled along by each new item that is uncovered by the various people who join Tim on his mission. However, no one’s dedication and patience is a match for Tim’s. A new friend, Max (Brie Larson), helps Tim the most, but she drifts away just as quickly as she arrived. Likewise, the digging can be serious but also comical. At one point, Tim enlists a cadre of drunk friends to help him uncover more clues. Armed to the teeth with flashlights, shovels, and more beer, they stumble out into the darkness in search of treasures unknown. This provokes me to wonder why I have never had such a brilliant idea myself!
While Tim digs, Lee wanders. Her character is largely unlikeable compared to Tim, although her narrative is necessary in light of the film’s ending. Tim and Lee’s separate journeys in the film create two different halves of something more whole. In digging and wandering, they both wrestle with questions of self-identity, parenthood, marriage, commitment, friendship, and aging. They are each having a quarter-life crisis throughout the film, yet they deal with it in distinct ways. Their conclusion at each of their journey’s end elevates this film to another level, in my estimation, and makes Digging for Fire a relatable and poignant story for nearly anyone in our current culture and experience.
Digging for Fire also features a plethora of fantastic actors, many of whom can be found in other indie films or Joe Swanberg projects. Sam Rockwell, Mike Birbiglia, Anna Kendrick, Ron Livingston, Melanie Lynskey, Jenny Slate, Timothy Simmons, and Orlando Bloom (yes, Orlando Bloom!) all make appearances throughout the short run-time of the film. Adding to this, Dan Romer (who also scored Beasts of No Nation) provides a stunning score for this film which adds legitimacy to the central plot device.
Digging for Fire might be a small film, but it is executed in excellent fashion by engaging the viewer on multiple levels. It gets into your heart and mind. Through relatable characters and even more relatable circumstances, Digging for Fire is a striking picture of human interaction and connection. Throughout the film, the viewer is left with an experience of that for which we strive, hope, and dream as relational beings on this planet. And, amazingly, it all started with an old bone and a rusty gun.