Something in the Dirt (CFF) Approaches Conspiracies and Madness with Poignant Tale of Loneliness
Title: Something in the Dirt
First Non-Festival Release: TBD
Director: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead
Writer: Justin Benson
Runtime: 116 Minutes
Starring: Aaron Moorhead, Justin Benson, Sarah Adina Smith
Where to Watch: Check out where to find it here
This film’s review was written after its screening at the Chattanooga Film Festival in 2022.
New neighbors Levi (Justin Benson) and John (Aaron Moorhead) discover something bizarre in Levi’s apartment, which has supposedly been abandoned for a decade. It appears to be a supernatural presence that only appears when they interact in specific ways. They vow to research and examine their subject and turn it into a documentary. Along the way their fixation grows harmful as they spend more time devoted to making meaning out of things that could conceivably be coincidences. As their lives break down, so does their trust in one another.
Without fully capitalizing on its unique premise, Something in the Dirt examines the complexities of toxic friendships and obsessions.
Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead are some of the brightest talents in the sci-fi horror scene. Their imaginative approach to the subgenre has made way for some of the most visually and thematically interesting films of the last decade. While Something in the Dirt doesn’t quite hit all the right notes for this reviewer, there is no doubt a sturdy hand behind the scenes ensuring that its vision is achieved.
Impressive technical prowess separates Something in the Dirt from its peers, particularly its editing. Interspersed during the various ramblings of explaining the supernatural, moments from the past or educational shots are interspersed in a way to visually show the audience why their theories are so compelling. When merely listening to a conspiracy theorist, it is easy to tune them out. When you see what they see, it gets harder to deny their truth. Throughout the film, a symphony of buzzing, whirring, crunching, and stomping helps unsettle the viewer while the various unexplainable phenomena envelopes the cramped apartment. Minimalistic and realistic effects help ground the film ven when the protagonists themselves are not grounded.
Partially a mockumentary while still shooting like a typical feature film, with some found footage thrown in it, the making of Something in the Dirt allows for Benson and Moorhead to flex their creativity and make for some interesting shots. Filled with imaginative camerawork, Something in the Dirt dazzles with its approach to creating its entity, unknown to the audience yet manipulating the world around John and Levi dangerously and beautifully.
Something in the Dirt utilizes excellent locations and set design to make its story more compelling. The unimpressive apartment complex becomes something like a lab in the way that the duo set up their experiments. It is haunting because it is so relatable. Scary closet doors with numbers and formulas etched into the frame and record players abandoned in the most unexpected places are just some of the highlights in this pandemic era film.
Moorhead and Benson talents behind the screen translate in front of the camera as well. Moorhead plays Levi with a quaint and sinister undertone as if he is never fully letting on that he knows more than he says. While he normally stays firm in Levi’s more palatable curiosity and ambition, his knack for sliding into the most gleefully and intentionally caustic person he can be. Benson plays his character straighter, as he is the emotional center of the film. Both do a great job.
John and Levi are fascinating both in their development and in their relationship to each other. They develop this sort of codependency born from their mutualistic desire to see this project through ‘until it gets dangerous.’ It’s also interesting to see their dynamic as an asexual and gay character, which feels unexpected but welcome. Their conversations allow for another dynamic to blossom between the two where they are at odds with one another.
Something in the Dirt shows how conspiracy theories take hold and who they enthrall. Both John and Levi represent to very different archetypes of those who get lost down rabbit holes. John seeks to find meaning in the bizarre to make his fascistic beliefs seem mild in comparison. Levi merely wants to find meaning in life after being dealt an unlucky hand. Their approach to the material supports this as Levi tries to walk away multiple times but is pulled back in by John who, no doubt, uses the same sickening manipulation tactics that his cult-like church uses on him.
Perhaps the most vital element to the story of Something in the Dirt is its attention to world-building. It takes its time to get moving, but its first half is arguably more engaging and unsettling that its back half. Deliberate and captivating, this cerebral film throws every type of conspiracy on the table to make sense of the unexplainable. Lights iridesce, objects move without reason, and life alters inside the tiny Los Angeles apartment. What’s even better, is the conclusion accepts that any explanation cannot be determined. While there is some resolution for the events on screen, there is no conclusion for the experiment. These questions go unanswered much like the various mysteries John and Levi pull from to make their earth-shattering documentary.
While it never quite crescendos beyond its muted approach, Something in the Dirt is an intriguing sci fi drama with enough horror elements to give it a nice bite. Benson and Moorhead have yet to swing and miss in their career, as this project is wonderfully executed in all respects. Strong characters, lively performances, and the off-beat supernatural phenomena explored by the duo makes this another unique viewing experience that is certainly going to provoke interesting conversations once finished. If you are searching for indie horror dramas far and wide, you’d be hard pressed to find something stranger and poignant than Something in the Dirt.
Overall Score? 6.5/10