"Is it possible this is extremely dangerous and we overlooked that part?" That question arises early in "Something In The Dirt," the latest bit of DIY brilliance from filmmaking duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead ("Spring"). The question hangs in the air for a moment and then is pushed aside. It comes up again and again, only to be continually ignored or shrugged off … until it's possibly too late. By then, we've followed the film's two main characters down a strange, twisting, inscrutable path, and we're not entirely sure what's real and what's staged. "Something In The Dirt" is a film that thrives on the unexplained. It is a story of bored, aimless guys in search of something, anything that might give their lives a semblance of purpose, or an answer to the question: "Why am I even here?"
Set in Los Angeles, "Something In The Dirt" is brimming with what the characters call "magical LA moments." Sure, Los Angeles can be hell, and to hammer that point home the film frequently shows us wildfires burning in the hills, belching huge plumes of smoke like some never-ending volcano. But the place can also offer surreal beats, where coyotes stroll up Hollywood Blvd., grinning at you as they go. As one character puts it: "LA is like Halloween, all the time."
A blend of surreal horror and found-footage aesthetics, "Something In The Dirt" introduces us to two strangers: John (Aaron Moorhead) and Levi (Justin Benson). Levi has just moved into the apartment building where John has resided for nearly a decade, and the two hit it off one day when they meet to smoke cigarettes in the apartment courtyard. A visit to Levi's apartment suddenly shakes everything up: a strange, potentially supernatural force makes itself known, and the two men immediately seize upon the idea of making a documentary about what's going on. Maybe they can sell it to Netflix.
Here's the problem: neither of them can truly pin down the truth. Perhaps no one can. But it doesn't stop John and Levi from spiraling out of control, throwing out one elaborate conspiracy theory after another. These are young men who grew up on "The X-Files," or "History's Mysteries," or other such shows. Now, as they stumble through adulthood, they are in dire need of some sort of balance. Some sort of pattern. Some sort of key to unlocking the mysteries of the universe. And maybe all the weird theories kicking around in their skulls provide the answers. "What's crazier?" John asks. "Believing every coincidence you see, or ignoring them?"
"Something In The Dirt" is about two guys chain-smoking cigarettes and bouncing ideas off each other. Such a concept could've backfired wildly, but Benson and Moorehead have become so good at this that "Something In The Dirt" is fire on all cylinders. Sometimes you watch a movie and know right from the jump that you're in for something special. That's the case here; this movie is bursting with mad, frenetic energy, and constantly tossing out weird ideas almost immediately, and it hooks you, amuses you, draws you in, and catches you off guard.
While watching this flick, it often feels like someone put every questionable, poorly-sourced History Channel documentary about the Freemasons, the Rosicrucianism, the Bermuda Triangle, UFOs, ghosts, alternate dimensions, psychokinesis, and more into a blender and hit the PULSE button repeatedly. And while there's a darkness lurking under this all, building towards disturbing places, there's also something quaint and charming about watching these two dudes float conspiracy theories back and forth. Once upon a time, conspiracy theories were kind of fun and harmless — and existed on the fringes of society. Now, thanks to lunatics who believe in things like QANON, they've entered our mainstream in terrifying, soul-crushing ways. This film reminds you of those harmless days. Of course, things don't stay entirely harmless here. And maybe they were never that harmless to begin with. Maybe that's the point. COVID-19 is never mentioned in the film, but it's hard to separate the constantly shifting, incorrect-seeming conspiracy theories of the two main characters here from the "Who cares what the experts say? I'm doing my own research!" crowd so vocal on the cesspool that is Facebook.
Levi is the more laid-back of the two friends. He's prone to drinking too much, and his apartment — where all the strange phenomena occurs — is under-furnished to the extreme. He sleeps on a couch. He uses milk crates as a table. He works as a bartender. He never really quite figured out what he wanted to do with his life. When it comes time to make the documentary, Levi gives off the impression that he doesn't entirely care where it's all going — he's just happy to be taking part in something.
John is a bit sharper. He seems to be the true believer of the two, although it's not entirely clear what he believes in. But as the two men form a wobbly friendship and dig deeper into what's might be going on, it's John who starts coming up with the more elaborate theories … theories that involve the actual construction of Los Angeles itself. Whenever Levi interjects with a theory of his own, John is quick to shoot it down. Moorhead does a dynamite job making John kind of loathsome and nasty, while we can't help but sympathize with Benson's aw-shucks, go-with-the-flow portrayal of Levi.
The strangeness begins in the form of a floating crystal — something Levi mistakes for an ashtray. At first, the men assume a ghost must be involved. But maybe not. Maybe aliens are to blame. Or a mysterious secret society. Or magic. Or … Well, the possibilities are endless. No theory is too outlandish — unless it's presented by Levi. Then John will swoop in and try to explain whatever Levi is saying away with his own unique theory. The two men go back and forth like this over a period of time. They take road trips. They uncover secrets via clues that seem to have been placed just for them. And they also grow apart — not that they're very close to begin with. It becomes apparent rather quickly that John looks at Levi with disdain, considering him to be of lower intelligence. And yet, he also behaves as if he needs Levi. Levi, for his part, keeps thinking about getting the hell out of LA, only to get pulled back at the last possible second. If John really didn't like Levi, why would he stop him from leaving? And if Levi really didn't like John, why would he stick around? Like it or not, these two weirdos have no one else. They're stuck with each other.
The building shakes. Planes flying overhead seem to lose control. Birds smash into the front door. Strange crystals appear on the floorboards. The ceiling leaks. The closet emits an almost hellish heat. Gravity comes and goes. What does all of this mean? Is any of it really happening? Frequently throughout "Something In The Dirt," Benson and Moorhead pull the rug out from under us, such as when they suddenly start introducing documentary-style talking head interviews from experts addressing what's going on. There's a film within a film here, as the two men keep trying to make their documentary they keep cycling through teams of editors, all of who end up quitting for one reason or another. There are also re-enactments of things we've already seen. It's almost impossible to pin down exactly what's real here, and what is part of the character's fevered imaginations.
The filmmakers convey all of this through a series of quick cuts and inserts. Archival footage is intercut during conversations, recalling the chaotic-yet-brilliant editing style of another conspiracy theory-heavy film, Oliver Stone's "JFK." Like Stone, Benson and Moorhead understand that you can't just drop two guys in a room and let them talk non-stop. That might work on the stage, but it's not very cinematic. By intercutting a smorgasbord of mixed media, the directors have conjured up an unrelenting experience. We're constantly knocked off-kilter here as the characters crash and slam into one weird theory after another.
There's a playful sense of humor built into all of this, specifically from the way the two main characters go about their theories. Nothing John or Levi comes up with by way of explanation is even particularly original – it's all bits and pieces of info stolen from podcasts, half-remembered books, YouTube videos, and TED Talks. And when one theory has been stretched to its limit, it's not a big deal — it's just time to move on to something else.
As "Something In The Dirt" reaches its dark conclusion, we're no closer to knowing the truth than when we began. And that's all part of the film's fun. Once again, Benson and Moorhead prove that they can produce a stellar, original film with a tiny fraction of the budget of bigger Hollywood filmmakers. The movie landscape is a far better, weird, and beautiful place with them in it.
/Film Rating: 9 out of 10
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The post Something in the Dirt Review: Another Wonderful Genre-Bending Gem From Benson and Moorhead [Sundance 2022] appeared first on /Film.