Synopsis – When neighbors John and Levi witness supernatural events in their Los Angeles apartment building, they realize documenting the paranormal could inject some fame and fortune into their wasted lives. An ever-deeper, darker rabbit hole, their friendship frays as they uncover the dangers of the phenomena, the city and each other.
My Take – Ever since they made their feature debut with Resolution (2012), the film-making duo of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have been wowing science-fiction and horror connoisseurs worldwide, mainly due to their approach to storytelling which sees them avoid the adoption of the usual grand-scale of the genres, instead choosing to keep everything grounded and mostly relatable.
While the duo have branched out into large-scale projects as well in recent years, like directing an episode of the ‘The Twilight Zone’ reboot, and two episodes of Netflix‘s acclaimed ‘Archive 81’ and Disney+‘s Marvel series ‘Moon Knight’, their latest effort sees the maxi-hyphenate duo (they star, direct, produce and edit, Moorhead serves here as DP, while Benson wrote the script and provided his apartment as the central location) head back to their indie roots with another shoestring science fiction piece addition to an already impressive collection, which includes films like Spring (2014), The Endless (2017), and Synchronic (2019).
Conceived during the pandemic, this micro-budget science-fiction puzzle that acts a cross between Poltergeist (1982) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) is exactly what you would expect from them – a transcendent conundrum about two slackers’ search for hidden meanings and paranormal signs, but laced with a lot of dark humor which makes it a rather entertaining watch.
Sure, it’s a little longer than it needs to be, and the second half is occasionally overburdened by the sheer weight of its own ideas, but if you’re in the mood for an audacious, ambiguous head-trip, then this is it. As both Benson and Moorhead‘s chemistry and writing helps to make this film engaging, interesting, and funny at the same time.
The story follows Levi (Justin Benson), a down-on-his-luck drifter, who is on the verge of leaving town, but before doing so moves into a cheap Los Angeles apartment where the door of a closet doesn’t close and one of the walls is filled with physical equations. At the courtyard downstairs he ends up meeting John (Aaron Moorhead), a wedding photographer who appears to be friendly enough and the two pretty much hit it off in their first encounter. The latter even offers to help the former with some furniture to furnish the newly rented apartment.
But, on the day of moving the furniture, the two end up witnessing a strange, scintillating anomaly in Levi’s living room that levitates a crystal ashtray and creates spiral patterns on the wall. After the initial freak-out, believing it to be a ghost, they decide to make a documentary about it to snare a Netflix deal.
However, John, an unblinking adherent to an apocalyptic church, begins noticing the same geometrical patterns everywhere around the city, in brickwork, signs and the like. Pushing the two into an ever-deeper, darker rabbit hole that begins to fray their friendship as they uncover the dangers of the phenomena, the city and each other.
The result more or less follows the story beats of a found-footage film, complete with faux behind-the-scenes setups and interview cutaways that foreshadow an ominous incident to come. For those familiar with directors Benson and Moorhead’s particular brand of style, it will come as no surprise that the film has far more in store. We see John and Levi spend much of the film presenting theories colored by whatever podcast they just heard, or whatever trivia snippet they’ve retained from falling down a Wikipedia hole.
They explore topics ranging from alien contact to concerning levels of radiation to a cult devoted to Pythagoras and his triangle theorem. Their ideas are all nice and digestible, creating a pleasant hangout vibe. The mostly linear narrative is sometimes interrupted with footage which suggests the said documentary was eventually made but possibly not in the way Levi and John would have liked.
But as events spin increasingly out of control, the film steadily unpicks the tenuous threads of John and Levi’s relationship, archly probing the cracks in their attempt at collaborative film making, while gleefully poking holes in America’s disturbing love-affair with wingnut conspiracy theories.
While most of directors Benson and Moorhead’s works tend to take the content seriously enough to deal with things from a logical, explanatory perspective; this one seems to take a different route. Even though it comes off as this deep, meaningfully grounded, and to some extent self-indulgent science fiction, but in reality, it is a rather casual darkly comic tale of one know-it-all and one really unfortunate person suffering just by hanging with him. Something which also demonstrates the film’s sense of humor.
For example, unlike expert camera-wielders we see in horror films and thrillers more typical of the found-footage format, these guys just don’t have the discipline or focus to keep filming all the time. Though it plays its story straight, there are some genuine moments of comedy throughout, such as John inexplicably speaking in an odd accent while narrating part of the documentary and Levi trying and failing to set up a tripod. The notes of levity come about organically and further ground the story in reality. And the way the film doesn’t disclose those reenactments up front deliberately adds a layer of distrust on top of an already knotty Meta premise.
Yes, the film may disappoint some as writer Benson is perfectly happy to leave multiple threads hanging, even its main one. But in the end, this is film that is more about the journey than the destination, and is more concerned with diving into its thematic elements and exploration of character than giving closure by the time the credits roll. The pair of indie all-stars have made some of the best genre films of the last few years, so it makes sense for them to integrate self-reflection into this uncomfortable semi-spoof.
Yet what really makes the whole thing work is the dynamic between Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, who have great on-screen chemistry, and they really sell the uneasy friendship between these two disparate LA residents. Often the best scenes are just Levi and John having a conversation about their lives and diving into some deep truths. Moorhead, as John, is particularly impressive as he manages to make you laugh at him and also be mad at him, all at the same time. On the whole, ‘Something in the Dirt’ is a highly intriguing Low-Budget Mind-Bender that is engrossing, funny, and unnerving at the same time.
Rated – R
Run Time – 116 minutes