Review: “Something in the Dirt”

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s latest film, “Something in the Dirt,” concludes with a dedication: “to making movies with your friends.” This is the fifth feature film the pair have written and directed together (they also star) in a filmography that includes everything from indie (“The Endless”) to big budget sci-fi (“Synchronic” for Netflix), as well as a segment in the 2014 horror anthology “V/H/S: Viral” and, more recently, joining the Marvel machine for the Disney Plus series “Moon Knight.” Their bond is evident throughout “Something in the Dirt,” even though they’re playing characters whose quest for meaning drives them to mistrust and manipulation. The project, conceived in 2020 and shot with a tiny crew primarily in Benson’s own apartment, often possesses the stream-of-consciousness feel of two buddies just riffing off each other, using a lightly sketched premise to explore ideas of filmmaking ethics, the leaps we take to justify our experiences, the magic that exists in the world, and how small and alone a lot of us feel in it. It’s scrappy and chaotic editing aesthetic won’t appeal to everyone, but it’s a curious and creative movie—perhaps the pair’s most ambitious project to date— that proves that Benson and Moorhead still have a unique voice that exists outside the studio machine.

Benson plays Levi, a man who’s scraping his way in LA as a bartender who just moved in to a sketchy apartment complex. When the film opens, he’s scoping out his place: there’s a leak, and the doors don’t close all the way. Outside, he meets John (Moorhead), who has lived in the neighboring apartment for close to a decade. A recently divorced math teacher who moonlights as a wedding photographer (John explains away what looks like a bloodstain on his white dress shirt as a cocktail getting thrown around at a goth-themed wedding he was shooting), John may appear more outwardly respectable than Levi, but he isn’t doing so much better. The two strike up a rapport, with John offering to let Levi use some furniture he doesn’t need, and it’s while moving some things around Levi’s apartment that they witness a paranormal event: Levi’s quartz ashtray levitating off the shelf, the stone sending rainbows shooting around the room. So they immediately set about doing what any respectable LA resident would do in such a situation: they begin filming a documentary capturing the phenomena, with the hope that they can sell it to Netflix, earn fame and fortune, and inject some purpose into their otherwise purposeless existence.

Justin Benson as Levi in “Something in the Dirt”

The paranormal activity, which only escalates to new levels of strangeness as the film progresses, is at the center of “Something in the Dirt,” but it isn’t what the film is about. Benson and Moorhead concentrate more on what feelings the weird incidents draw out of their characters: insecurity, hope, and loss and regret. They are of the generation who tries to explain away everything by matching it with something they saw on YouTube, or a show on the History Channel. Levi ruminates on the simple, beautiful parts of the city no one ever seems to notice, just as he’s on the verge of leaving LA. John, meanwhile, is the member of a church whose apocalyptic ideas govern his view of his surroundings. The film gradually unveils details about their past through their encounters, and what begins as a potential buddy comedy as they fumble their way through making a movie (they can’t even agree on a title) fast turns to deceit and mistrust.

It’s when “Something in the Dirt” deviates from its more scattershot approach to storytelling and tries to reconcile each character’s dark past in the final act that it starts to fall apart. And the documentary style the film alternates back and forth between, with different talking heads the duo supposedly brought on to the project later alluding to ethical concerns with them restating events and adding visual effects, adds another layer to the movie that’s fascinating although it sometimes feels like it’s part of a separate film. Maybe with “Something in the Dirt,” Benson and Moorhead have just too many ideas for their own good (the film is also a good 20 minutes too long). But I think it’s because the two are so clearly familiar with each other and have worked together for so long now that what works in this curious, kind of funny, kind of sad, and kind of strange film works at all.

“Something in the Dirt” is now playing in select theaters. Runtime: 116 minutes. Rated R.

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