The cult of Benson and Moorhead deepens with their latest feature which manages to explore fascinating phenomena through a rather more intimate, restricted setting.
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.
Across their previous work, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have established a knack for bringing engaging characters to the screen, foregrounding those relationships as an anchor for their explorations of sci-fi concepts. Something In The Dirt continues that preoccupation with intense male friendships while also adding a detailed, sinister, and, at times, playful, exploration of conspiracy thinking.
A meeting between divorcé John (Aaron Moorhead) and drifting barman Levi (Justin Benson) soon transforms into a folie à deux relationship of mutual manipulation and a desperate search for meaning after the discovery of strange phenomena in Levi’s new apartment. Moorhead and Benson are no strangers to acting opposite one another, allowing them to centre that chemistry, bringing a likeability to both characters even when playing with evolving audience perceptions of them. While films like Resolution, The Endless and Synchronic all focus on long-term relationships and the baggage that comes with them, Something In The Dirt finds tension in the new, unpredictable partnership they find themselves in.
The production design is excellent, bringing to life the apartment where the pair spend the bulk of their time. Much is made of the escalating heat within the space, with the walls seeming to sweat and buckle under it. There is an initial simplicity to the phenomena that aids the development too – too much too soon and the believability of the scenario is lost so the initial visual hook proves essential for providing that first spark. This attention to detail delivers further when the pair venture outside in search of further clues with symbols, shapes, and even references to their previous work (most specifically The Endless) appearing. The entire design places the viewer in the same space as Levi and John, challenging them to find the same clues (or even different ones) to the two men. Despite being a pandemic project, there is very little mention of those circumstances, with Levi and John isolated not by any outside restrictions but by their own directions in life. Both are defined, to some degree, by their loss of connection to those around them.
Los Angeles also plays a crucial role in the film in terms of how it can be demonised or romanticised as ‘LA Magic’. Levi’s video of a coyote wandering near the apartment operates as a moment of quiet beauty and danger simultaneously. Recent conspiracy thriller The Scary of Sixty-First used New York to the same effect, making the city an integral part of the mood and tone of the film in their contrasts between festive advertising and buildings adorned with gargoyles. The relative anonymity of a big city makes the connection between two people who appear to share the same vision a rather more seductive one and that sense of being lost to the conspiracy as an escape from an otherwise disappointing reality is one that is impossible to ignore. However you choose to interpret the film’s reality of ‘what actually happened’ that thread remains. From the outset, the seemingly constant noisy hum, heat and movement of LA is foregrounded with wildfires, earthquakes and low-flying planes all a quietly accepted part of life.
In terms of the references to their other work, it feels important to note that previous knowledge is not essential and elements like a photograph, film poster, or beer advertisement will strike a chord with fans without disrupting the experience for unfamiliar viewers. More rewarding for fans of their previous work is that this feels like a culmination of the pair’s aesthetic and thematic interests. The addition of ‘meta’ elements like the documentary footage wraparound, clips of their own home movies and dramatically elevated reconstructions make Something In The Dirt a film constantly on the move and constantly challenging the viewer to keep up with the thought processes of the central duo. The performances are excellent, with Benson’s rather more sensitive portrayal of Levi pitched against Moorhead’s more intense John to frequently disquieting effect. The talking heads in the documentary portions are convincing too, perfectly adopting the accepted tone of the documentary being pulled together.
Matryoshka dolls that feature as part of a wind chime outside the apartment appear at distinct moments throughout the film as it explores its layers. This is rarely a linear film, especially with the segues to different formats but it somehow finds cohesion in this scattering. Like John and Levi, the viewer becomes free to start imprinting their own meanings and conclusions onto the film, taking up only the threads that resonate.
An entirely magnetic and absorbing work that invites and rewards repeat viewings, Something In The Dirt is a film content to go at its own pace and truly indulges in the strangeness and human nature it wishes to explore.
5 out of 5 stars
Lightbulb Film Distribution release Something in the Dirt in select cinemas on November 4th. Find the list of cinemas here.