Monday, August 31, 2015

Digging for Fire (2015)

Joe Swanberg is one of the more interesting writer/directors working today, ever since his debut film, Kissing on the Mouth (2005).  He shows a willingness to experiment with scenarios involving intimacy (both physical and emotional) and Swanberg takes some serious artistic risks in exacting his cinema.  His latest film, Digging for Fire (2015), has premiered recently theatrically; and despite the fact that I live in a major city in the United States, the film was unavailable to see on the big screen.  The film did, however, appear on demand, and via iTunes, I was able to see it recently.  Let’s see what’s shaking.

Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Tim (Jake Johnson, who also co-scripted) are a young couple with a child about to enter preschool.  Lee teaches yoga; Tim is a high-school gym teacher; and their family are house-sitting in an upscale home for an actress out of the country filming.  Lee is stressing about their child’s education: she wants their son to go to a good school and is worried how they are going to pay for it.  Tim’s view is more lax:  he teaches in public school and feels it would be hypocritical for their son to not attend there.  Tim is also reticent to prepare and file their tax return.   To top it off, Tim has found on the property a rusty revolver and an old bone.  He wants to dig further and see what else he can uncover.  Understandably, Lee wants Tim to abandon that idea but she knows that he will not.  Instead, Lee decides to visit her parents (Judith Light and Sam Elliott) with her son for the weekend: this visit will afford her the opportunity to leave her son in good hands and have a relaxing evening out with friends.  Tim, unsurprisingly, becomes obsessed with the idea of finding more treasures on the property.  He continues to dig and has friends over for the weekend.  Lee and Tim, at this point, will remain separated for the duration of Digging for Fire, and each will take her/his spiritual journey during this last vestige of youth.
When Digging for Fire concluded and the credits began rolling, my sister, who was also in attendance at this viewing, said, “Nothing happened.”  She’s right:  Digging for Fire is a drama and it follows the traditional, three-act structure of drama; but nothing “dramatic” happens.  The only time that a character raises his voice, Ray (Sam Rockwell), it does not end with a violent confrontation or a yelling match.  Hurt and embarrassed, Ray leaves after his outburst, since he had been chastised by Tim for interrupting his evening with Max (Brie Larson).  The only time that a fight occurs in Digging for Fire is off screen:  a chivalrous Ben (Orlando Bloom) politely escorts a drunk out of a bar who was hitting on a clearly perturbed Lee.  For his chivalrous act, Ben receives a cut above his eye but he doesn’t throw a punch in return.  In fact, he asks the hostess at the bar to call the drunk a cab.  Finally, for example, both Tim and Lee have an opportunity to cheat on each other that evening:  Ben cooks Lee a meal for helping him tend to his wound, and the two take a moonlit stroll on the beach.  Ben kisses Lee, and despite the fact that she is attracted to him, she leaves him at the shoreline.  Tim and Max have a day of digging and bonding and dinner.  She comes over to the house the morning after the party at Tim’s house to retrieve her purse.  Max stays, and they get to know each other, creating a close connection.  Tim is too scared to even put his head in Max’s lap—it’s fairly certain that Lee and Tim love each other:  they just need some time away from each other to re-enforce and realize it. 
Digging for Fire is about the last days of youth and the entrance into real adulthood, the beginning of a family and its responsibilities.  (Swanberg’s son, Jude, plays Lee and Tim’s child, so Swanberg may be experiencing the same issues as he has rendered creatively.)  The film presents its themes in an understated manner, indicating, perhaps, that the process is not as stressful as its main characters are making it (it is rather an intuitive, natural choice).  Some are reticent to enter adulthood, such as Ray, and some of the characters, like Max, are clearly in the middle of youth.  Lee and Tim are going to cross the threshold by the end of the film.  At times the symbolism of the film is a little heavy-handed (e.g. Tim’s discovery in the final act), but overall, the symbolism is organic.  (In an especially adept scene, Lee purchases a leather jacket as an impulse buy.  Later, she steals money out of her mother’s purse.)  In one of my favorite scenes, Lee visits her friends, a married couple with two children and a nanny, portrayed by Melanie Lynskey and Ron Livingston.  Lee wants Lynskey to go out with her for the evening.  Lynskey’s character declines to go out with Lee:  it is implied that her husband may be cuddling up to the nanny, as Livingston’s character has invited the nanny to accompany them on a family trip to Costa Rica.  A lot of the scenes have a Raymond Carver, slice-of-life feel to them.

Again, Swanberg with Digging for Fire makes another interesting film about intimacy; and he does not need overtly “dramatic” scenes to accomplish a rather fine piece of cinema for those open-minded and willing to see it. 

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