You’ve seen this movie before. It may have been called, Breaking Away or perhaps Four Friends or even Diner. Cinema history says that this subgenre begins with Fellini and I Vitelloni. But that’s not a film a clam digger is likely to go and see and that’s what this film is about: guys who make their living digging up the clams you eat in your chowder. Now, clams are ugly creatures who hide in ugly shells so it’s appropriate that this movie is ugly as well, as it’s set in the mid ‘70s when MEN wore really awful mustaches and tight pants.
Diggers is set specifically in 1976, the bicentennial, during the Presidential race between Carter and Ford. The Long Island we are shown here is a thing of the past, a working class community rather than a resort town, where the local industry is clam digging, an industry that is being decimated by a huge conglomerate who has restricted the best clam areas and left the dregs to the independents. Some have sold out and joined the enemy to make ends meet while the desperate characters at the center of this story refuse to give in so easily.
It’s a very detailed portrait of a time and place that is about to change forever. You can see it in the faces of the characters who are trying so hard to survive. They make a valiant effort to hold on to their way of life, but it’s really of no use. Time has passed them by.
Director Katherine Dieckmann does a wonderful job at capturing the particular melancholy between the lines of the well constructed screenplay by actor Ken Marino. This is a Long Island of 1976 in someone’s memory, like a faded Polaroid in an old shoebox. Marino grew up in this community and has said it was a tribute to his father. You can clearly feel the affection on screen. These are people the writer loves and respects.
My favorite film in this subgenre is probably Beautiful Girls, written by Scott Rosenberg and directed by the late Ted Demme. One of the features of these films is the creation of a strong central character to hold down the ensemble, someone who seems to be drifting through their life and has to make one life changing decision before the credits roll. The calm and likable Timothy Hutton played that role flawlessly in Beautiful Girls and here we have another calm and likable actor, Paul Rudd, going through the paces. Rudd plays Hunt, a clam digger who goes to work each morning with his father. He seems to be disappointed in his life and bored with his routine. When we meet him, he is late for work and arrives to find his father dead. Hunt and his sister Gina (Maura Tierney) bury the old man in a rarely worn suit but with very familiar rubber boots. Hunt is left guilt stricken and at a real loss following his father’s death, as he finds his life more aimless than ever. He has vague aspirations to be a photographer, but this seems to have been locked away as a pipe dream within the realities of this blue collar community.
Along with his friends Jack (Ron Eldard), Cons (Josh Hamilton), and Lozo (writer Ken Marino), he finds himself at a crossroads. All of them see the town as their entire world and most have never stepped outside of it even to visit the big city, New York, which is only a short drive away. Jack and Cons distract themselves with women and drugs respectively while Lozo is filled with anger at his impotent position. He has a wife Julie (Sarah Paulson) and a rather large family to support and as a result, his choices are truly limited. All are tied tightly to the town except for Hunt. His ties are all in his mind. Besides a short fling with a city girl on vacation, Zooey (Lauren Ambrose), that he naively sees a future in, Hunt only has his sister to consider. He sees himself as her protector but doesn’t realize that she can easily take care of herself. It slowly dawns on Hunt that it’s himself he needs to think about and that maybe the town has grown smaller than him.
Diggers is nothing new. But it’s amazing how well the formula works when the writing is sharply observed and the film is well cast. Much depends on the ability of the cast to make you feel as though they live in these well worn shoes and they do not disappoint. Marino in particular has done himself a favor with his own role, casting himself against type and giving a performance that rarely makes excuses. Lozo is misogynistic and abusive but never villainous. He’s aided by Sarah Paulsen who gives a strong performance that shows just how her character could love such a man. It’s the details that make these films tick and Dieckmann and Marino give us plenty of detail from the production design to the costumes, to the male swagger, all of it seems just right. It may not be Diner or Beautiful Girls, but Diggers has it’s heart in the right place and is quite sincere.
Diggers is the latest release from Dallas Mavericks head honcho Mark Cuban and his movie triangle, Magnolia Pictures, HDNET films, and Landmark Cinemas. A whole new distribution model began with Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble in which the standard windows of day and date release are smashed. Diggers was released to theaters and HDNET cable TV on the same day and the DVD was released the following Tuesday. This is part of the “Napsterization” of the entertainment industry much talked about these days in which consumer choice is king. If you want to see it theatrically, go buy a ticket. If you want to sit at home and watch it, get HDNET, rent it from Netflix or buy it from Amazon. It’s your choice. Cuban is able to do this because he’s standing at all three doors to collect your money.
The DVD transfer is excellent. Shot in HD, the movie captures a warm tone that reminds you instantly of the cinematic world of the mid ’70s, when Technicolor had the perfect formula for color printing. The soundtrack is available in Dolby 5.1 as well as 2.0 but in either case is not exactly The Matrix. The dialogue is clean and the sound effects and score clear. Due to the odd release platform, Magnolia Films split some of the extra features to the theatrical release as well, encouraging ticket buyers online by offering them goodies via email. These included a downloadable soundtrack and posters.
On the DVD itself we get a very informative commentary by writer Ken Marino and director Katherine Dieckmann which focuses on the challenges of making a period piece on a very low budget. Higher Definition: Diggers is an episode of an HDNET show hosted by film critic Robert Wilonsky who seems uncomfortable promoting his boss’s product. It’s still an informative interview with Marino and Dieckmann although much of it is also covered in their commentary. An hour long documentary called Baymen gives a social and historical context for those who want it.
The extras are rounded out with 31 minutes of deleted scenes which for once are actually interesting. It seems a whole subplot involving Hunt’s anxiety attacks was removed from the film and the deleted scenes show how these were supposed to appear in the film. It’s interesting in how much these scenes would’ve shaded the movie in a different, though not necessarily better, way. It would’ve made a heavy film even heavier and these Diggers really need a break.