Digging for Fire spends 85 minutes scraping through the dirt and comes up with nothing but bloody fingernails and a deflated sense of purpose, disappointing rewards when compared to the fire in the title.
Joe Swanberg’s off-kilter romantic drama follows around housesitters Tim (Jake Johnson) and his wife Lee (Rosemarie DeWitt) as they camp out in a luxurious house up in what I’m assuming is the Hollywood Hills. While enjoying the house and its huge yards, Tim finds a rusted revolver and what looks to be a human bone in the vegetation on the property’s edge. It sparks his curiosity, and he slowly becomes obsessed with foraging through the dirt and discovering the soil’s buried mysteries.
Lee, bored with her husband’s meaningless discovery, takes their 3-year-old to her parents for the weekend, thus beginning their separate adventures in which they have one of those High Fidelity “what does it all mean?” moments. Tim has friends over, and a party soon sprouts from what was supposed to be a dinner with his bros, and Lee goes out drinking and starts picturing the tangents her life could be taking with just the tiniest of pushes.
And meanwhile, the hills beckon. Tim gets a shovel. He enlists help. They find a leather shoe, a bag of bones. At one point a neighbor comes over and seems to hint that something dark happened up there in those hills and maybe a young man shouldn’t invite those ghosts into his life. The bones and their metaphorical purpose might seem like the backbone of Digging for Fire, but it’s mostly just background noise to Tim and Lee’s diverging routes through the landscape of the film.
What could have been macabre and gruesome, is instead subtle and comically underplayed. What could have easily been a horror, instead turns into a series of drunken pool parties, coke-fueled joke riffings, mindless Uber rides, and conversation so pointless that the film seems to be aiming for wallpaper, audio-visual decoration for the thinnest and most high-minded excuse for a story. All of this is done with countless celebrities, who have little, if anything, to do. Anna Kendrick shows up to snort a line of cocaine and shimmy in her bra, Sam Elliott plays Lee’s father in one scene, Orlando Bloom is a hunky hero, Ron Livingston and Melanie Lynskey look dreadfully bored as a married couple, and even Sam Rockwell as an angry drunk can’t liven things up. I found a subplot with Johnson and Brie Johnson mildly interesting, but it doesn’t go anywhere or do anything. Like everything else in the movie, their scenes together are meant only as scale to the other relationships, a banana held up for comparison purposes.
I did enjoy Fire’s nonchalant pacing, which I felt was setting me up for a big payoff. The camera lingers on scenes of people chatting, slumping over bottles, writhing together in the pool. It all has a very voyeuristic feel to it, like we’re silent members of the parties. Unfortunately, there is no payoff. The bones go nowhere, nor does the revolver or the shoe. I kept thinking that something more supernatural or metaphysical were happening, especially when Tim tries on the shoe and it fits perfectly.
But, when all was said and done, Digging for Fire wasn't really interested in the catalyst that sets everything into motion. Whatever mystery that was up there in those hills, will die with this movie.