SUNDANCE22 REVIEW: Something in the Dirt [2022]

Rating: 6 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 116 minutes
    Release Date: 2022 (USA)
    Studio: XYZ Films
    Director(s): Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead
    Writer(s): Justin Benson

You can only fall so fast.

Directors Justin Benson (who also writes) and Aaron Moorhead go back to their roots with a lo-fi, (mostly) single locale sci-fi similar to their debut feature Resolution. Rather than a cabin in the woods, however, Something in the Dirt takes place within a cheap, lease-free, sight-unseen Los Angeles apartment. The tenant is a long-time area bartender named Levi (Benson) who’s hoping to jump ship and leave the city after his pursuit of something meaningful left him with only frustration. It’s within walking distance to work, near the airport, and comes with a balcony for him to chain smoke the days away. Are those “amenities” enough to offset the sound of critters, a dripping ceiling, and an unknown heat source turning the place into a sauna? Yes.

If not for catching one of his new neighbors (Moorhead’s John) resting in the shared “patio” area, Levi wouldn’t even have bothered with furniture. The former offers everything his ex-husband left behind and the latter quickly agrees. After sparking up a conversation that proves agreeable enough to perhaps become friends when all is said and done, something unexplainable occurs. John is about to leave when the light reflecting off the door passes through a crystal ashtray, mesmerizing him to the point of being unable to look away as it appears to levitate slightly above its resting spot. And it only floats higher once Levi enters the room, these two strangers becoming inexplicably bonded by an anomalous event they cannot shake. So, why not document it instead?

That’s about the extent of the plot beyond character background. What we learn about Levi and John’s pasts, however, are only to exacerbate the inevitable friction that builds between them once their hasty partnership reveals the cracks inherent to unfamiliarity. Not only do these two know nothing about each other, they aren’t really afforded the time to care about wanting to rectify that situation once the ashtray steals their focus. What’s happening in this apartment consumes them both to the point where absurd ideas and obscure hypotheses become their go-to talking topics. While they might simply disregard both as neighbors, the decision to film a documentary of their experiences demands more. One reveling in control while the other proves readily agreeable amplifies the quickly growing resentment.

The film unravels fast into a rabbit hole of coincidences and stubbornness, every little thing that occurs on the heels of that initial event being jammed home as both corroboration and expansion. Scribbled math equations on the doorframe lead to crackpot theories of Pythagorean cults. Unfamiliar sounds become evidence of otherworldly guests when taking a pause for clarity might reveal a much easier answer outside their window. Are the sudden onset of tremors actual earthquakes or a warning from whatever being has decided to make itself known to them? Are they somehow enlightened beings who have evolved to the point of seeing through the veil? Are they victims of heatstroke embroiled in a case of shared hallucination? Whose potential title idea is more attractive for Netflix?

I’m a big fan of Moorhead and Benson and Something in the Dirt does prove to be an entertaining ride thanks to their rapport and do-it-yourself technical prowess, but I’d be lying if I said there was much more than that present here. The interesting thing is that there does seem to be room for it that remains unexplored. Levi’s tumultuous and (maybe or maybe not) misunderstood past possesses ample ideas to explore and yet all that really comes out of it are punchlines. The same goes for John and his zealot tendencies courtesy of a staunch Evangelical faith. It’s a detail wielded for empty conflict that just adds to the repetitive cycle of paranoia and hubris seeking to finally tear these two apart. Window dressing abounds.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think it’s a mistake. The point of this work, besides the opportunity to make a film with friends during a pandemic, is to show just how easy it is to find oneself lost in one’s own bullshit. Levi and John take their joined path onto the wildest of tangents and almost seem to only believe the most far-fetched of them all. The more off-the-wall the connection, the more feasible it is (or more difficult to refute). And when they eventually become numb to that steady stream of chaos, they have no choice but to embellish instead. It’s another point where things could really go off-the-rails by turning the camera inward (outsiders even arrive to call them out) that sadly doesn’t bear fruit.

It’s a case where logistics seem to dictate content. This is a very small cast (the directors and a handful of cameos) in isolated locations. As such, it’s easier to present threads and possibilities than to follow them through. Moorhead and Benson do their best to overcome limitations with a mix of archival and home video serving as memories and explanations (they bandy about many heady ideas whether about math or Los Angeles history), but that stuff only goes so far when you’re always cutting back to the same fluctuating pattern of manic highs and depressive lows on-the-ground. The whole looks great (the duo’s effects work is always on point) and the acting is solid (if less substantive than The Endless), though. Fans should have a good time.

[1] Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson appear in Something in the Dirt by Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Aaron Moorhead. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or ‘Courtesy of Sundance Institute.’ Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

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