Writer/director Joe Swanberg is a filmmaking junkie, having made nearly 20 feature-length films since 2005. But it hasn’t been until the past few years, starting with 2013’s Drinking Buddies, that he started to get real attention outside of the indie film crowd as he began populating his casts with relatively big-name actors.
That trend continues, and then some, with Digging for Fire, the smallest film with the biggest cast you’ll ever find. Jake Johnson and Rosemarie Dewitt star as married couple Tim and Lee, who start the film house-sitting for Lee’s boss. While exploring the grounds, Tim happens upon a bone of unknown origin and a rusted-out gun, piquing his interest as to what else he might find if he digs a little deeper.
While a studio film might turn the premise into a suspenseful murder mystery, Swanberg and Johnson, who’s credited as co-writer, instead use it as a study of personalities. Both Tim and Lee become obsessed with the idea of something, and how they deal with those obsessions propels the film forward.
Swanberg usually lets his actors improvise most of their dialogue, and the hesitancy you often find in actual conversations can be seen throughout the film. Unfortunately, at least in this case, it doesn’t lend itself to anything all that interesting. A few situations crop up that could prove dramatic, but Swanberg doesn’t seem interested in pursuing that option very hard.
Swanberg’s use of bigger name actors also becomes somewhat of a detriment to the film. Apart from the two leads, actors like Sam Rockwell, Orlando Bloom, Sam Elliott, Anna Kendrick, Brie Larson, Judith Light, Ron Livingston, Melanie Lynskey, Mike Birbiglia, Chris Messina, Jenny Slate, and Jane Adams all show up, sometimes for just a few lines. The presence of so many recognizable stars proves to be a distraction, as you wind up concentrating on the actors and not the characters they’re supposed to be playing.
Still, the quality of the actors can’t help but elevate the film even when there’s no discernible reason for them to have been cast. Johnson is not a typical leading man, but his charm wins out in the end. Dewitt, as she’s shown on multiple occasions, is magnetic, so even her small moments resonate. Of the large supporting cast, Larson and Rockwell stand out the most.
Swanberg’s oeuvre of filmmaking takes some getting used to, and Digging for Fire is neither the best nor the worst example. It never really goes anywhere, but that’s kind of the point.