Tim and Lee (Jake Johnson and Rosemarie DeWitt) are a young couple with an adorable three-year-old son. Tasked with housesitting for one of Lee’s wealthy clients, the family takes up temporary residence in a luxurious home in the hills, a quiet respite where they can enjoy some peace, giving Tim the opportunity to tackle the family’s taxes free from distraction. Eager to shirk that tedious chore, Tim explores the woods adjacent to the house and finds a rusty old revolver and a curiously human-looking bone. He wants to grab a shovel to see what else might be buried out there. Lee just wants him to do the damn taxes instead of engaging in creepy amateur archaeology. She decides to take off for a few days to visit her parents and enjoy a much-needed night out with a girlfriend. She tells Tim to stay out of those woods. Fat chance.
This is the setup for Joe Swanberg’s latest film, Digging for Fire, but don’t get the wrong idea. While the synopsis sparks to mind thoughts of a murder mystery, or perhaps even a horror film, these avenues are well outside of the film’s purview. Tim does indeed use his wife’s absence as an opportunity to excavate the secrets of the grounds, inviting a slew of buddies over, including Phil (Mike Birbiglia), Ray (a heavily bearded Sam Rockwell), and eventually a couple of fetching young women, Max (Brie Larson) and Alicia (Anna Kendrick). Beer is consumed, skinny dipping is engaged in, but the party inevitably leads to shovelfuls of earth being tossed around in the service of ghastly thrill-seeking. After the party runs its course, Max returns the following day to continue to help Tim dig, captivated by the excitement of discovery. In the course of their burrowing, the two find more bones, but they also begin to grow a bit too flirtatiously close.
Lee’s leg of the story also grows eventful, even without the prospect of exhumed femurs. Dumping the kid off on grandma and grandpa, she’s desperate for some adventure of her own, but hits a wall when her girlfriend (Melanie Lynskey) is waylaid by the same sort of oppressive domestic responsibilities that Lee is so desperate to momentarily cast aside. Determined not to concede defeat, she strikes out on her own in her stylish leather jacket, eventually crossing paths with a handsome stranger (Orlando Bloom, looking a bit more weathered without that elven sheen) who shoos a tenacious drunk away from Lee and absorbs a cut to the forehead for his troubles. After accompanying her chivalrous new friend to receive some stitches (from Kendrick’s Alicia, though the film doesn’t make hay from this connection), Lee spends the evening walking around with the man, each enjoying the other’s company while agreeing that their connection can only be for one night.
Marital malaise is what Digging for Fire means to explore rather than ancient unsolved murders. The film sets its sights on how stifling domesticity can often feel, with the rigorous demands of parenting and day-to-day life sapping the excitement out of life. Tim and Lee each constantly ruminate to those around them about how the joy of being a parent is offset by the duties and demands inherent to inhabiting that role, with the joy aspect only just barely inching ahead of the stress. Each spouse hungers for freedom, for adventure, and finds that exhilarating jolt of spontaneity in the company of another. The film is insightful and honest about the stymied yearnings that bubble under the surface of domestic bliss. Temptation is a powerful force, and it takes a strong person to resist that siren song. The real mystery of Digging for Fire is whether or not Tim and Lee have a sturdy enough bond to repel that lure.
Still, it would have been in the film’s best interests not to pretend that there were other mysteries to solve as well. The film keeps coming back to those bones in the dirt, hinting with all its might that there’s something intriguing to be revealed. The film especially cheats with a scene where Tim encounters an elderly neighbor who seems hauntingly aware of whatever took place years ago on those grounds, and warns Tim about the otherworldly dangers he threatens to unleash upon his family by disturbing these unofficial graves. It becomes clear before long that Tim’s fevered exploration stands as a clunky metaphor for his restlessness in marriage and his desire to probe into things best left alone (he unearths a wedding band at one point, lest you didn’t make this connection without some symbolic prodding), not something the film is building toward in any manner other than figurative. It’s fine that this is the film’s aim, but don’t bluff a pulpier side if you don’t intend to have one.
Digging for Fire is an agreeable, if slight, meditation on how family life threatens to choke the individuality and adventurous spirit from a person. The film is talky, but rarely dull, and it has a top-shelf cast. If it ultimately seems a little pat and undernourished, at least it doesn’t overstay its welcome at a brisk 85 minutes. It just would have been better served by not pretending that it was going places it clearly had no intention of going. Honesty, after all, is another thing a relationship needs.
Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Brandon Wolfe at @BrandonTheWolfe.