Something in the Dirt is a formidable DIY effort bearing Benson & Moorhead’s expected formal ingenuity, but it’s unfortunately all in service of a rather trite subject.
DIY genre auteurs Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead are back, delivering another trippy two-hander. Across the past decade, these two have built some very intricate works out of little more than ambition and sticktuitiveness, a two-man show that writes, acts, directs, and edits, responsible for truly idiosyncratic stuff like The Endless, about (maybe) a UFO death cult, or the sex-panic vacation nightmare Spring, which also happened to be far more interesting and touching human/monster romance than something like The Shape of Water.
Unfortunately, it seems all that moxie does in fact have limits, and their latest project, Something in the Dirt, doesn’t really transmute its tantalizing subject matter into much more than a thesis, and a rather tepid one at that. We begin with erratic, likely borderline unstable Levi (Benson) moving into a dingy L.A. apartment that mysteriously features a door that won’t open and walls scratched up with spooky cryptograms. In short order he meets downstairs neighbor John (Moorhead), an equally intensely weird dude, and they bond pretty quickly, eventually heading up to the aforementioned scary apartment where they witness a levitating ashtray that shoots laser beams. And since this is L.A. after all, it seems like the only thing to do is to make a documentary about this.
Things get massively more complex from there, with mysterious — and possibly disparate — events piling up, along with repeating numbers and patterns, buried artifacts, and endless theorizing. Eventually we realize what we’re watching is a documentary about the making of their documentary, which also contains its own sets of talking heads and a trove of apparent reenactments of situations that can’t possibly be corroborated. More impressive still is that almost all of it never leaves the apartment. Benson and Moorhead have done a fine job technically crafting this very intricate structure, bringing to bear their formidable DIY skill to this obvious COVID shoot. Unfortunately, what’s being examined here is the desperation of the conspiracy theorist, the need for self-validation via an investigation that never stops — the unsatisfying nature of Levi and John’s quest is baked into the premise. Mileages will vary as to whether one finds that to be a feature or a bug, but it’s hard to ignore the irony that all of Benson and Moorhead’s formal ingenuity has here been placed in service of this rather trite subject.
Originally published as part of Sundance Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 3.