Joe Swanberg Continues to Work Through His Feelings About Marriage with Digging for Fire

Courtesy of The Orchard

Digging for Fire
Directed by Joe Swanberg
Opens August 21

As the title suggests, there is indeed physical digging in Digging for Fire—but the “fire” isn’t literal, nor is it as cosmic as anything in Quest for Fire or 2001: A Space Odyssey, two films a character jokingly references when Tim (Jake Johnson) unearths a bone in a backyard. Instead, as ever with filmmaker Joe Swanberg, it’s an emotional fire married couple Tim and Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt) seek.

Essentially, Swanberg’s latest film is yet another drama of a marriage on the rocks, one whose bonds are tested when the couple spends some time apart and each of them encounter temptations to stray.

The difference, naturally, lies in the execution. As has been the case since he came onto the indie landscape in the 2000s with films like Kissing on the Mouth and Hannah Takes the Stairs, Swanberg’s is a cinema of intimately scaled interpersonal conflicts writ large, of telling gestures seemingly caught on the wing, of (oft-improvised) dialogue covering a chasm of unspoken subtext. Even as Swanberg has tackled different subjects and genres—and even as he had flirted with something approaching mainstream success in recent films like Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas—he has remained remarkably consistent in style and approach.

At their best, Swanberg’s brand of cinema can exude the lightly revelatory feel of dropping in on privileged moments, of slowly discovering an unfolding drama while you watch it—in other words, the textures of life captured by a carefully observant camera. Shame, then, that Digging for Fire doesn’t always escape a “once more around the block” feeling—the temptations of infidelity not so different from scenarios Swanberg and Johnson already explored rather more potently in Drinking Buddies, not to mention in the deeper and more religiously inflected films of Eric Rohmer, Swanberg’s spiritual predecessor (at least in his own mind). For all its occasional pleasures—including a climactic cross-cutting montage that shows Swanberg at his most impressively kinetic—Digging for Fire never quite generates the kind of revelatory insights into human relationships that might justify the amount of time Swanberg hangs out with these characters.

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