This review originally ran as part of our Sundance 2022 coverage.
Poke around online for any amount of time and you’ll inevitably stumble upon a strange corner promoting one oddity or another. Even if you promise only to follow friends on social media, to read trusted sources, to avoid all but the most wholesome memes, strangeness—and those pushing it to make a buck—will find you. That might take the form of an algorithm recommending some flat-Earther nonsense after you looked up a flatbread recipe, or of a random LinkedIn message from a half-remembered co-worker who’s fallen into something that doesn’t call itself a cult but avoids doing so almost conspicuously. And that’s not even touching QAnon, COVID deniers or the History Channel. Capitalized conspiracy surrounds us. Half mock-doc, half sci-fi two-hander, all bone-dry L.A. satire, Something in the Dirt takes a bemused look at those all too happy to exploit phenomena and each other—with the typical small-scale charm of an Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson project.
Delving into their own DIY careers, filmmakers Moorhead and Benson respectively play John, a religious wedding photographer, and Levi, his new bartender bum neighbor, who decide to make a documentary together after seeing a freaky bit of unexplainable floating and shining in the latter’s apartment. Enamored by the levitation and refracting aura of an irregular glassy prism (alongside a swollen closet door that won’t shut into its equation-covered jambs), the pair of oddballs dig into all the strange explanations for what might be going on. Is it geography? Geology? Ghosts? Whatever the case, they naturally also discuss how much a quick-and-dirty doc about their investigation might net them after a sale to Netflix. It’s L.A., after all.
The locale is of paramount thematic importance. It’s enough that it enhances their slapstick escapades as amateur documentarians—fucking around with iPhones, uncharged batteries and full memory cards—and its place in the confined cinema of the pandemic, since it’s mostly shot in and around a single apartment, but it also informs the characters and their ever-branching rabbit hole. Perhaps the supernatural events are intrinsically linked to L.A. city planning, as the town’s always been a hotbed for those like Crowley and Hubbard. Does the locus itself attract weirdos or do weirdos simply flock there, creating a self-fulfilling woo-woo culture? The interpersonal secrets of these particular weirdos leak out over the course of their ridiculous red-pilling, their tumultuous relationship somehow reflected by the potency of the magic in the apartment, revealing dudes desperately using this hunt to fill their empty lives. Multiple takes of cheesy walk-and-talks are hilarious, but still stink of behind-the-scenes sadness. Levi and John, as different as they are, are still all about image—the projection of success rather than its achievement, embodied by Levi investing in his teeth rather than his future…or are those the same thing?
This superficiality extends to their endless hunger for meaning, for having it all figured out, and all the personal prestige that brings. It’s not really about finding the answers, but about insinuating that you already have them or are, perhaps, the only one who can be trusted to find them. As the pair cite podcasters, Redditors and YouTubers—pushing theories, like the alien colonization of Earth, that are literal X-Files storylines—the over-the-top series of coincidences fades into the background as the increasingly tense story about filmmaking unfolds. The production of the movie-within-a-movie sees Levi and John enable each other and fritter away whatever magic was once in front of them, told through verbose arguments and grubby multimedia deadpan. It’s here that the duo shines, both as filmmakers with experience working in overly intimate and possibly obsessive conditions and as charming performers with years of co-working chemistry that comes across even when playing these sometimes cartoonish characters. The timing, delivery and diction of jokes and barbs alike are precise but not overdone; the documentary framing device doesn’t always boast such success. But despite some of its uneven formal gambles, it’s easy for its metaphor about the artistic process to emerge from this intense, stubborn and often unhealthy relationship as the magic, which began as filmmaking-adjacent mysticism surrounding electromagnetism (what are movies, but tricks of the light?) adds music with a Beethoven motif.
A little long and slapdash by virtue of its varied interests, with some of its jabs landing more squarely than others, Something in the Dirt still shows off Benson and Moorhead’s filmmaking strengths in another seemingly personal picture. The pair of indie all-stars have made some of the best genre films of the last few years (seriously, go watch The Endless right now), so it makes sense for them to integrate self-reflection into this uncomfortable semi-spoof. When you make a movie—especially when you make them like Benson and Moorhead—you live in your own little world. Something in the Dirt’s silly, strange and unnerving depiction of this process judges the sanity of those willing to do so while explaining why, for some people, it’s the only thing that makes sense.
Director: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead
Writers: Justin Benson
Stars: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead
Release Date: January 23, 2022 (Sundance)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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