April 13th, 2007
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.
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.
My rating: A-