Something in the Dirt, 2022.
Directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead.
Starring Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead.
When neighbors John and Levi witness supernatural events in their Los Angeles apartment building, they realise 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.
Low-fi horror wunderkinds Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead make their Sundance debut with their fifth feature Something in the Dirt, a barebones budget sci-fi shot with a crew of just three – Benson, Moorhead, and producing partner David Lawson Jr, who doubled as assistant-cum-COVID compliance officer.
Evidently the filmmaking duo have used the restrictions of the pandemic to shape a hangout movie like few others; a playfully meta existential thriller that’s messier and more uneven than the directors’ best works, but laudable in its boldness.
Troubled bartender Levi (Benson) is planning to finally leave Los Angeles once and for all, but first hunkers down in a no-lease apartment while wrapping up his affairs. Levi soon enough encounters neighbour John (Moorhead), and their fast friendship ends up galvanised by the discovery of seemingly impossible gravitational phenomena in Levi’s new digs. Once their shock abates, the pair decide to try and monetise the supernatural occurrences, collaborating on a documentary film they hope will bring them grand riches from Netflix or whoever.
Benson and Moorhead are certainly among the better-equipped genre filmmakers to create something this impressively low-fi amid a pandemic with basically no crew, given that their filmography is nothing if not the definition of creativity triumphing over limitations.
Their latest ultimately feels less like a curated narrative than it does a grab bag of loose ideas shaped around an intriguing buddy sci-fi black comedy. Though tipping its hat as much to the earlier sci-fi of Steven Spielberg as mystery noirs like Pi and Under the Silver Lake, and even sliding in occasional wink-wink echoes of their own prior work, Something in the Dirt is perhaps best described as a scream into the misinformation void of our existentially uncertain, brain-scrambling present.
The film’s sly narrative conceit involves a meta-narrative element which serves as a lithe metaphor for the agonies of filmmaking that Benson and Moorhead themselves have surely felt throughout their careers. Without giving too much of the game away, the story ends up invoking multiple perspectives and layers of truth (or not), in a daringly free-wheeling mixed media affair, roping in different video formats from high-end cameras to phones to grotty VHS handicams, as well as the pair’s own decades-old home movies.
If that sounds confusing, you should certainly prepare yourself for the headiest and most peculiar effort the duo has produced to date. And yet, that head-scratching nature is offset by its Linklater-esque slacker dialogue, so narcotised you can practically smell the weed smoke through the TV screen. It’s also abundantly clear that Benson and Moorhead aren’t massively interested in giving all, or even many, of the answers; it’s not a major spoiler to say that audiences will be left hanging with plenty to consider by the time the end credits hit.
“LA is like Halloween, but just all the time,” John says early on, typifying a film deeply interested in the kooky, anything-can-happen mythos of Hollywood. It serves as a canvas for these bored new pals to ponder the nature of the phenomena they’ve uncovered, poring over countless crackpot theories ranging from the curious to the hilarious to the at-times tiresomely over-egged.
In one instance, John has an inkling that schizophrenia’s uptick in recent history coincides with humanity’s popular domestication of cats, which carry an infectious parasite (in reality, the theory was debunked years ago). While the sheer bombardment of wacky speculation starts to become a bit grating by the end of act two, considered within the context of a pandemic where bullshit has free-flowed everywhere, it feels aptly of-the-moment.
Benson and Moorhead’s movies have always boasted impressively robust aesthetics for their price tags, and this is certainly no different. Beyond the aforementioned inclusion of a frankly dizzying number of media formats, the directors along with co-editor Michael Felker frequently cut away to stock footage and B-roll, weaving a restless tapestry that reflects the skittishness of its characters. Subtle VFX help create a palpable mood early on, even if the limitations become clear by film’s end. The deal is sealed by crunchy sound design and a groovy ambient electronic score from regular collaborator Jimmy LaValle.
It’s probably fair to say that Something in the Dark is more effective as an off-kilter comedy than a sci-fi horror film; the slow-burn is perhaps a bit too slow for its own good, with a brutally saggy mid-portion ensuring exhaustion sets in long before the end.
That might well be the intent per the film’s battery of images, and though the duo finally find an affectingly meaningful path through, it can sometimes be tough going getting there. At least, unlike other low-fi filmmakers headlining their own movies, Benson and Moorhead make for incredibly natural presences in front of the camera, even when Levi and John’s dynamic becomes one of increasing emotional brutality.
This film is certainly impressive within the context of its creation – both as low-budget and low-budget during a pandemic – if perhaps easier to respect and admire than it is to love. Evangelists of the filmmakers will find plenty to enjoy here, but you also couldn’t be blamed for feeling it a little too extra for its own good.
Dense, ambitious, and overlong, Something in the Dirt sees Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead dive deep down the conspiracy theory rabbit-hole for an impressive, if often exhausting, meta-sci-fi yarn.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.