Sundance Review: Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead Dig Deeper With ‘Something in the Dirt’
There’s few voices in independent film who can weave a cinematic universe with enough depth to rival some of Hollywood’s biggest studios in terms of layered storytelling spanning multiple movies, however it seems to be second nature to filmmaking duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead who alongside their longtime producer David Lawson Jr. aim to do precisely this every time they go to work. Together they’re responsible for a slew of emotionally-charged, sci-fi/cosmic horror films that aim to challenge the viewer on a cerebral level, while in the process dissecting the very nature of telling stories through a screen via their unique brand of fantastical yet down-to-earth narratives which both frighten and enlighten. Their most recent outing Something in the Dirt (produced entirely in lockdown with their smallest crew to date) is no exception as it marks another entry into the ever-growing Benson and Moorhead Cinematic Universe, which finds the aforementioned duo in the leading roles again for the first time since 2017’s The Endless.
They’ve left the UFO death cult behind this time around to portray a pair of aimless guys who meet entirely by chance and end up experiencing something profound together, sending them into a conspiracy-laden rabbit hole from inside the walls of their shared Los Angeles apartment complex. Straying slightly from their previously time-centric narratives to craft something that serves as more of a deep dive into the human psyche and an exploration of a city’s hidden past, the writer/directors employ their amazingly bizarre sensibilities to elevate into another surefire cult hit what could’ve been a meaningless exploration into the paranormal if left in the hands of lesser creators. After waking up in his temporary no-lease apartment during the process of leaving L.A. in what seems to be a futile attempt to escape his troubled past, Levi Danube (Benson) meets his gay divorcee neighbor John Davies (Moorhead) and the two quickly become friends over a conversational cigarette. Shortly thereafter, while moving some furniture into Levi’s apartment, they witness a solid quartz ashtray discussed earlier in the story levitate and refract the light from the window for a few moments in what’s clearly a supernatural manner. It’s this one random occurrence that sets off the rest of the mysterious and strangely engaging events comprising the film’s 116 minute runtime.
Like anyone who’s experiencing something unexplainable in modern times their plan of action is to film a documentary centered around these bizarre events to sell to Netflix, and they immediately begin rattling off potential titles after their initial fear wears off. As the two continue to juggle their very little actual responsibilities with running a full-fledged DIY investigation into this scarily exciting phenomenon, they sink further and further into the madness that begins to unfold before them while more frequently turning to their own vices for peace of mind. It’s quickly evident that they’re far from experts as there’s a heap of comedic moments displaying their incompetencies charmingly yet effectively, which in turn makes it easier to relate to and grow fond of the characters’ differing personalities along the way. It’s also refreshing seeing an investigation ran from the perspective of directionless, financially normal people who stumbled upon a mystery as well as one another, because it allows the viewer’s relationship with them to form in a highly organic way that’s also parallel to the development of the relationship between the characters themselves. It’s quite easy to find yourself absorbed into the rapidly deepening rabbit hole alongside them and by the time things come to a close you’ll have far more questions than answers. In many films a lack of closure detracts from the experience but here it empowers it, which will have you pondering the implications of this peculiar situation long after the credits have rolled.
Leaving behind the more straightforward set pieces of their last two films in favor of dialogue-driven, slow-burn tension building accompanied by darkly comedic moments in a singular location makes this outing feel more akin to their debut feature Resolution in terms of tone and pacing. The setting being swapped from the desert to the city makes for some interesting shifts in terms of sound design though, with electrical hums and overhead noises being responsible for creating much of the atmospheric tension in addition to the cosmic whispers that are likely familiar to people who’ve seen the previous films set in this universe. Though pulled back in scale from the extravagant set swaps of Synchronic there’s still plenty of homegrown visual effects at work here, all executed very convincingly with the unique aesthetic flair fans have come to expect from the creators. There’s slightly more enjoyment to be had with Something in the Dirt for those who’ve followed Benson and Moorhead’s ever-expanding narrative from the start, though due to the brilliantly executed world-building consisting of loosely connected stories sharing the same rules and unseen cosmic force there’s really no certain viewing order required to appreciate these films more overall as you begin to see the bigger picture. This aspect alone is worth a standing ovation from a writing standpoint, but the fact that they accompany this with excellent work from almost every possible production angle is what makes their films must-see experiences.