Every film from directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead feels like an experience. Whether it’s a Lovecraftian-inspired love story or a UFO death cult, each film takes viewers on an unexpected, bizarre journey through the weird. With their latest film, SOMETHING IN THE DIRT, which had its World Premiere at 2022’s Sundance Film Festival, the directing duo, who also stars in the film, once again enter the territory of weird fiction as they document a phantasmagorical experience.
Newly moved into his apartment, Levi Danube (Justin Benson) meets John Daniels (Aaron Moorhead), another resident at the complex. After striking up a conversation, the two retreat back to Levi’s apartment where they experience a supernatural encounter. Wanting to know more, the two decide to direct a documentary with the hope that they will be able to uncover the truth and make a little money off of it. As their search becomes more dangerous, the tension brewing between them bubbles to the surface causing a divide that could have devastating effects on both their lives.
SOMETHING IN THE DIRT feels timely. We meet Levi and John as the world is quite literally burning before their eyes. However, we get the indication that this has been going on for quite some time as both these characters have very little reaction to it. It’s reminiscent of how a lot of us feel about the ongoing pandemic. For them, first and foremost they are just trying to survive that LA grind. There is never a direct mention of the events that are transpiring just outside the frame. As the film moves along it becomes apparent that they would rather focus on something preternatural rather than face the reality of the world around them.
My favorite aspect of this film is the relationship between Levi and John. There’s an authenticity in their interaction, even as it becomes continuously more toxic. Benson and Moorhead have been working together since 2012’s Resolution, so it’s no wonder their interaction would feel genuine. This lent itself to a film that felt more personal, to the point where I questioned if they were playing the characters or themselves. The success of the movie falls on the shoulder of these characters and, if we the viewers can’t connect, then we aren’t going to want to go on this expedition with them. Luckily, Benson and Moorhead give one of their best performances to date resulting in characters that are engaging, raw, and vulnerable.
In terms of the storyline, there are a lot of moving pieces in regard to the mystery. There’s a levitating ashtray, scrawled mathematical equations, conspiracy theories, questionable symbols, and more. Add in a non-linear storyline that dips in and out of reality and fantasy, and you are left, at times, scratching your head in confusion. That being said, there is one silver lining to this. As with most of their films, SOMETHING IN THE DIRT begs to be watched time and time again.
Since this was shot during the pandemic, the crew was small which allowed for a more intimate film setting. Additionally, Benson and Moorhead utilized a lot of practical effects in order to achieve a mind-altering feel to the film. Also, the majority of the film is contained within either of their character’s apartments which helped in heightening a sense of paranoia and isolation. Plus, what’s scarier than feeling unsafe in the place you should feel the safest?
But what was really impressive was the way in which they crafted SFX for the more imaginative moments. With what I’m sure was a small budget, they were able to skillfully execute visuals that truly felt otherworldly. The film also relied heavily on sound that would elicit a visceral reaction. Whether it was the high-pitched noises emanating from the ashtray or the creaking of a door opening, the sounds were just as impactful as the visuals.
Overall, SOMETHING IN THE DIRT is a great example of what can happen when curiosity turns into an obsession. It’s a film within a film, and if you don’t pay attention you could find yourself easily lost and confused. Even so, I loved going on this strange adventure with these characters. As a fan of shows like “The X-Files,” “Fringe,” and “Unsolved Mysteries,” SOMETHING IN THE DIRT tapped into my love of weird fiction and was a reminder that maybe we should stop fucking around with things that we don’t understand.
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