Making something of a return to their independent, DIY filmmaking roots, filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have put together another feature focused on a couple of aimless guys who begin to experience bizarre occurrences challenging their status quo. Something in the Dirt may have less scope in mind compared to their terrific 2019 time-travel mind-bender, Synchronic, but it’s no less ambitious, thought out, and thoroughly compelling.
As far as otherworldly and not easily explainable occurrences go, Benson and Moorhead’s latest effort could come across as wildly confusing were it not for the amount of confidence they’ve gained as directors (and other filmmaking duties) over the course of their previous four films. This story centers on a couple of neighbors discovering a supernatural event seemingly contained entirely inside a Los Angeles apartment room. Not wanting to let this phenomenon go to waste, the two begin documenting this occurrence at the eventual risk of tearing apart their newly formed friendship.
Again, the director pair find themselves starring in the film, acting as the two hapless apartment occupants. Benson (who’s also credited with the screenplay) portrays Levi, a free-spirited guy rocking a surfer look and holding back from addressing his sketchy past. Moorhead is John, a more calculating hipster-type, tied to an Evangelical community set on predicting the apocalypse.
Having the two take on such distinct personas lends more credence to my thought that Something in the Dirt is also aiming to be quite humorous. It’s helpful, as the film opens more and more doors as it goes along to the idea that simply documenting weird stuff happening in Levi’s apartment is not enough for a movie to sustain itself. That said, it’s Levi and John that realize this. After an extended intro of sorts, it becomes clear that a framing device is in play, but why? The film doesn’t openly connect the dots right away. Instead, the viewer comes to understand the game being played as the idea of false realities begins to take shape.
It’s still not that simple, though. While the film dabbles in various theories and ramblings that go on and on about numerology, secret societies, and more, the notion of creating a film within a film becomes evident as well. Those familiar with the previous films by Benson and Moorhead, particularly Resolution and The Endless, will see Something in the Dirt as a film coming out of a similar mold. Fortunately, much like those previous features, the choices made to radically alter perception at various times are not made for the sake of pointless distraction. They have a distinct purpose that allows for introspection when thinking about friendships, human desires, and an exhausted mental psyche.
Despite clever filmmaking conceits, interesting camera work, and minimal but effective visual effects, the film basically never leaves the apartment location, bringing the filmmaking conditions to mind. Whether or not the film was conceived or influenced by the pandemic, it’s hard not to take away some interesting ideas concerning the friendship on display and how a declining mental state based around the puzzling event in the apartment ties into how people in isolation are continuing to feel.
Similarly, the way the characters debate what could be happening and how John, in particular, jumps to so many different ideas based on whatever he was reading about that day speaks to the mainstream role conspiracy theories have taken and the ample amount of misinformation currently available. Were Benson and Moorhead more focused on startling the audience, it wouldn’t be hard to see these various rabbit holes be weaponized in a way that could allow for a more shocking feature. Instead, the two opt for a trickier film to nail down that’s also curiously poignant. It’s a credit to the acting talents of these two that Something in the Dirt can find additional ways to nest in other forms of drama that guide this story down an intriguing path.
Whether or not there is a specific goal that can successfully explain whatever is going on in the apartment while also resolving the nature of the bond formed between John and Levi, the film wisely approaches a few points that secures Something in the Dirt as a filmmaking achievement. That’s a credit to the scripting and editing. The audience needs to stay intrigued with what’s on screen, despite the attempts to distort what’s taking place.
This is the sort of thing that makes Benson and Moorhead two of the most exciting genre filmmakers currently out there. I’m very curious about what they’ll be able to bring to their episodes of Disney+’s upcoming MCU series, Moon Knight, with Oscar Isaac. With that said, being able to continue springing for these smaller yet ambitious sci-fi/genre flicks is something great to see. That’s especially the case, given how rewarding they feel as features one can continue to unpack over time.