PARK CITY, UT: In the Q&A session following Sunday night’s Sundance Film Festival premiere of Joe Swanberg’s new film Digging for Fire, star Rosemarie DeWitt recalled getting a text from co-star Sam Rockwell shortly after production began — a text reading, as she recalled, “What the eff is this movie about?” Many of the responses in the Sundance Twittersphere (the best harbinger of that most valuable of commodities up here, “buzz”) have roughly paraphrased that reaction; word is that it’s a meandering, dull mess. (One critic dubbed it Digging for Dire.) To be sure, it’s not exactly an accessible picture — unlike Swanberg’s last two major, star-heavy productions, Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas, which share several cast members with his latest. But experimentation is kinda what we’re up here for, right? Right?
The (to put it mildly) loose narrative finds Jake Johnson and Rosemarie DeWitt playing a couple, married with child (Swanberg’s own son Jude, who also appeared in Happy Christmas, again steals the show), staying in a beautiful home in the hills owned by one of her yoga clients, a movie star off on location. She decides to take a vacation within the vacation, leaving their son with her parents and her husband to his own devices so she can enjoy that rarest of beasts, a night out. Meanwhile, he’s discovered a rusted revolver and a bone on the hillside, and becomes convinced that a body is buried there. Bodies, maybe!
Swanberg’s working with his biggest and most impressive cast to date; in addition to the leads and Rockwell, Brie Larson, Anna Kendrick, Mike Birbiglia, Chris Messina, Melanie Lynskey, Ron Livingston, Orlando Bloom, Jenny Slate, Judith Light, and Sam frickin’ Elliot all show up (some of them entirely too briefly). The size of that ensemble and Swanberg’s particular way of sorta hazily drifting from one half-overheard conversation to the next gives the picture a Robert Altman vibe that’s never really been present in his work before, but the iconic filmmaker echoed even more prevalently here is the patron saint of meandering movies about straining California couples, John Cassavetes.
Like Cassavetes’ Faces and Husbands, Digging for Fire is ultimately about the strains of marriage and the pull of temptation, though it’s as aware of (and interested in) the journey of its female protagonist as its male one. DeWitt is certainly the actor for the job; she’s crafted a string of recent performances that, taken together (and even in terrible films like Men, Women & Children), form a nuanced picture of the expectations of modern femininity. There’s a scene, late in the movie, where she’s looking at herself in a mirror — really looking — and while the shot itself may be easy, you can’t write the kind of stuff she’s doing in that scene.
Johnson has a similarly indescribable yet effective moment of his own, where he finally gets what he wants and reacts to it in the last way you’d expect. It’s a great beat, and he’s got several of them here, reaffirming his status as a kind of 21st-century Everyman. Among the vast supporting cast, the standouts are Brie Larson — there’s a shot of her listening, when he mentions his wife and kid, that’s just perfect — and (believe me, I’m as surprised as you are) Orlando Bloom, who is more natural and relaxed than I’ve ever seen him in a film.
It all adds up to something more than the sum of its parts, a series of keenly observed moments that defy your typical (read: dull) three-act conventions in favor of something messier and, frankly, more interesting. At the premiere Q&A, Swanberg explained that to him, the movie was about the realization that a marriage should be “two individuals agreeing to be in a relationship, rather than two people melting into one thing.” And in a strange way, the idea applies to Digging for Fire itself; it’s a few far-flung, individual things rather a single cohesive one. That’s a risk, but with a filmmaker and cast like this, it’s a risk worth taking.
Digging for Fire screens this week at the Sundance Film Festival.