Something in the Dirt, 2022.
Directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorehead.
Starring Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson.
When neighbors John and Levi witness supernatural events in their Los Angeles apartment building, they realize documenting the paranormal could inject some fame and fortune into their wasted lives. An ever-deeper, darker rabbit hole, their friendship frays as they uncover the dangers of the phenomena, the city, and each other.
After working with in-demand talent such as Anthony Mackie on their latest feature Synchronic, it’s a surprise to see philosophical sci-fi indie darlings Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead snap right back into DIY filmmaking mode with Something in the Dirt. In a way, it’s also entirely unsurprising considering whether or not that experiment was successful (it was) or whether a global pandemic is raging, they genuinely feel like a duo that embraces their roots as their greatest strength and will always function somewhere in that wheelhouse (even working within the confines of Kevin Feige, there are high hopes for Moon Knight to be a standout MCU entity that rides high on their heady collaborative brainpower).
Taking advantage of a one location setting that’s a relatively empty apartment room and infusing the aesthetics with a visual style Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead refer to as “dusty natural” (its intent to shoot real-world colors with more flair), Something in the Dirt centers on a one-off encounter between residents of the apartment, one long-standing and one that has just moved in four or five hours ago.
Performing double duty, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead also play these directionless burnouts (bringing their best friend chemistry to screen once again); Levi (Benson) is new to the living quarters but has routinely enjoyed his gig as a Los Angeles bartender for quite some time now whereas John (Moorehead) fixes up scooters. Call it conspiracy or coincidence, not only do these two cross paths as soon as Levi gets himself situated in the apartment, but they hit it off, finding some common ground. Simultaneously, a crystallized ashtray left behind from previous owners starts to levitate as a colorful glow emanates from within the room (as usual, the special effects here are minimalistic and outstanding, never once compromising the groundedness of the story).
In a matter of minutes, Levi and John decide to team up to document the supernatural occurrences in the room as a get-rich-quick scheme (early on, there are some great industry jokes about selling projects to festivals and Netflix). They also happen to be genuinely curious regarding this phenomenon, with John in particular seemingly reaching multiple limbs into different rabbit holes pulling out crazy conspiracy theories indebted to everything from scientific theories, a geometric shape that potentially has something to do with the town they live in, gateways to alternate dimensions, aliens ready to make contact, and even cats controlling humans.
On the surface, parsing through history and nonsense theories is an entertaining distraction (especially if their findings eventually make them money), considering these are not necessarily harmful explanations being proposed. However, as the research goes on, new details about John and Levi arise; one of them is a criminal, and the other is an evangelical wacko. It’s a dynamic that both tests this burgeoning friendship while also posing a question of who is a worse person.
There is an organic repetitiveness to Something in the Dirt, which is a double-edged sword as, on the one hand, yes, this could be a much more tightly edited viewing experience as it does temporary test patience. At the same time, that search for purpose is vital to the narrative. Fortunately, the proceedings engage on multiple levels, such as deconstructing supernatural sighting documentaries and the inevitable psychological downside of conspiracy obsession. One of these characters realizes that the search is going nowhere, only to be manipulated and reeled back into the documentary within the movie. There’s a variety of motives behind it, and none of them are particularly healthy.
That’s not to say the deep-diving here is aimless for viewers, as it is fascinating to see where these characters are trying to connect the threads next. Those that do some repeated viewings of previous Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead films will also latch onto and enjoy making an expansion of their own cinematic universe. However, none of them are required to get something substantial out of Something in the Dirt.
Art will also unquestionably imitate life, as the events leave plenty of unsolved riddles worth theorizing about while watching again. Of course, some will be frustrated that all that is not explained. Those people are not familiar with these filmmakers’ bizarre and captivating works. They would also be missing the point that the universe doesn’t have to explain itself, especially when people try too hard to make all the pieces fit into their version of reality, although that point could be made more efficiently. Enjoy the beauty of life, the random occurrences as they happen at the moment. Something in the Dirt qualifies as one of those weirdly gripping experiences.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com