For a film about lonesome, working-class drudgeries, "Diggers" is abnormally claustrophobic. It's a picture that should require a 10 minute break in the middle just to get some fresh air back into your lungs. That said, the film may be dreary, but it's far from unpleasant.
Off the shores of Long Island in 1976, a group of local clam diggers are facing tough times. A fishing corporation is draining the ocean of profit, leaving a digger like Hunt (Paul Rudd) at a crossroads in his life he's not ready for. With his digger father recently passed away, a sister (Maura Tierney) who doesn't need his protection anymore, childhood friends (Ron Eldard, Ken Marino, and Josh Hamilton) who are coping in destructive ways, and a romance with a rich girl (Lauren Ambrose) that won't make it past summer, Hunt is forced to make some serious choices about his future and plot a new course for his life.
I respect anyone known for one genre who desires to make a change, but "Diggers" made me hesitate a little because it comes from writer Ken Marino and producer David Wain, better known as members of the sketch comedy group, "The State." Going from brilliantly diseased minds that gave the world "Wet Hot American Summer" to this period drama is a strange course of action, but the transition is smoother than it sounds and the execution couldn't be better.
"Diggers" is an evocative look at a time and place where tradition is being smothered by the steamroller called progress. The film takes an intimate look at lives caught in the inertia of routine, unable to process that their glory years have ended. Marino might not have the fancy budget to paint a bigger portrait of an economy being swept away by big business, but his rendering of these lives newly aware of their own stagnancy is decidedly compelling screenwriting. "Diggers" is harsh around the edges, confronting the inevitability of change and other swallowing circumstances that make up the anger and shame of poverty; yet, Marino is writing from his heart, sympathizing with the diggers as much as he's confronting their bad habits and the inbred fallibility of their communication.
Director Katherine Dieckmann has it just as bad as Marino when it comes to budgetary scope, but her sure hand with this unusual location lends the story a certainly oppressive, but oddly comforting life. Through haircuts, music, and the handmade lay of the land, the director convinces the viewer that it's 1976. With dynamic performances, especially searing lead work by Rudd (who has really come into his own as a performer), Dieckmann brings the film down to a touchingly authentic level than any viewer could relate to. You don't have to dig for clams to understand the heartbreak of outgrowing a comfortable life and leaving behind close friends.
Shot in HD with careful attention placed on period mood and small town life, the visual experience of "Diggers" overcomes many of the limitations the tiny budget given to Dieckmann provides. Presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1 aspect ratio), the film is bathed in a warm outdoorsy feel the DVD captures very well.
Offered in 5.1 or 2.0 Dolby Digital, no matter the choice, "Diggers" isn't very hefty in the sound department. Dialogue remains clear and some surround action is found in the water sequences, otherwise, this is a simple and straightforward mix.
"Diggers" includes a small handful of special features that tend to play up the film's melancholy mood.
Up first is a feature-length audio commentary with director Dieckmann and writer/star Marino. The two are very friendly personalities, calmly explaining their efforts to make "Diggers" for very little money. The track isn't energetic, but passes at humor by Marino count, and if you enjoy the film, the little production anecdotes are interesting. Some highlights:
- It turns out Long Island just didn't have the right retro vibe for "Diggers," forcing the production to shoot in Staten Island.
- Actor Peter Dinklage was cast in the role of stoner Cons, but had to give up the part when a television deal came through. He was quickly replaced by Josh Hamilton, who actually gives the best performance I've ever seen out of the actor.
- "Diner" was a major influence on the brotherhood tone of the film.
- In Marino's early script, Hunt was a sketcher. In keeping with the 70s time period, his artistic hobby was switched to photography. Dieckmann ended up taking all the pictures featured in Hunt's portfolio.
"Higher Definition: 'Diggers'" is a 30-minute-long interview show hosted by film critic Robert Wilonsky. Taped in a cramped hotel room, Wilonsky is no Charlie Rose. The critic stumbles through an embarrassing interview with Dieckmann and Marino, touching on how certain moments in the film were inspired by "Breaking Away," questioning Marino on his casting choice to play a jerk, and generally grinding the show to a halt with his poorly planned series of questions.
Though I don't feel it's a worthy extra, I would recommend a watch just to see the "Higher Definition" opening titles, which have the bald, intimidating Wilonsky in a series of goofy slow-mo poses and close-ups that push him as someone of amazing renown. This display of raging ego doesn't disappoint.
The hour-long documentary "Baymen" is the most curious of the "Diggers" DVD extras. This 1999 exploration of the diggers who still populate Long Island waters looks more like a 1982 community college senior project, but the retains a fascinating, sobering look at the men trying to keep their livelihood alive. It's a dry documentary, with little in the way of excitement, but it's a sharp observational piece that's worth a view after taking in the feature.
Finally, 31 minutes of deleted scenes are included. Most of these scenes were cut to pare down the film and give the movie a sense of focus. Comprised of fatty character asides the final feature had little use for, the scenes are interesting to watch (including a subplot about Hunt's panic attacks), but were rightfully clipped to keep the movie flowing gracefully.
Risking cliché with Hunt's photographic pursuits (the grizzled worker who takes time out of his day to snap found art), Marino's script combats a rising feeling of formula with sharp, detailed writing that pushes "Diggers" to an area of sincerity that's unexpected and welcome. It's a heartening journey of loss and growth, and even if it feels like a plastic bag suddenly wrapped over your face at times, contains a dramatic soul, muddied indie-film ease, and pure intention that completely wins you over by the last frame.