The arrival of a new Benson-Moorhead joint will always be cause for celebration. The enigmatic, fan-favorite duo, who have made telling wild, borderline impenetrable sci-fi stories their bread and butter in a relatively short amount of time, most recently released Synchronic, their first properly A-list-led flick and, by some margin, also their weakest. Something in the Dirt returns the indie filmmakers to their roots, as it were, with both men taking starring roles while splitting the writing, directing, and editing duties as normal. It’s not exactly a return to form but, after the disappointment of Synchronic, it’s a step in the right direction for sure.
A bespectacled Aaron Moorhead is John Daniels, a meek, super religious tenant at a dilapidated apartment complex in a dodgy corner of Los Angeles who’s recently gone through a breakup (the fact John was married to a man is, refreshingly, introduced with little fanfare). Justin Benson is the fantastically named Levi Danube, a new tenant with badly bleached hair, surfer tatts, and a barely disguised drinking problem. The two men meet by chance and strike up a tentative friendship built predominantly on the fact they’re both heavy smokers–this is a big smoking film, so be forewarned if you miss it, like I do–only to stumble upon something supernatural in Levi’s apartment.
Thus begins a strange journey into the unknown, during which these two hapless losers attempt to capture on camera an otherworldly phenomenon that, despite John’s mathematical wizardry, they clearly have no hope of understanding. The movie’s title refers to the in-story documentary that the duo make along the way, with Benson and Moorhead interspersing amusing asides with unwilling cohorts who get drawn into their characters’ orbit and immediately regret taking part–“Why did you play yourselves in the recreations?” one deadpans. Throughout Something in the Dirt, every element seems to be hinting that something very bad is about to happen but, as usual, Benson and Moorhead have much more on their minds than simple shocks and cheap scares.
The ending has a big question mark attached, and whether you accept it or are irritated by the lack of closure will depend on how much you buy into what’s come before. There’s big L.A. energy to this movie, but the famous city is so loud that the score, by Benson and Moorhead’s regular collaborator Jimmy LaValle, is often intrusive and even drowns out the dialogue at times. The location is terrific, particularly their hovel-like apartments–which likely cost a bomb regardless–but it often takes precedence over the story itself. The visualizations are often impenetrable, and it takes a while to get used to the pretentious cutaways that, it slowly becomes clear, are in there to evoke the feeling of a true-crime documentary. This ambitious choice kind of works against the craft of the movie, too.
Thankfully, the VFX are totally convincing, and the mix of formats is cool, with John and Levi jumping between filming each other and existing in their own movie–or is it a recreation? Benson and Moorhead are almost modern-day David Lynches, so it’s unlikely they’re ever going to sit down and tell us exactly what they were going for, with any of their work, but Something in the Dirt is particularly difficult to comprehend. There’s a bit too much left unsaid by the end, including the significance of the number 1908–maybe we’re supposed to do further study on our own time?–and whether John and Levi have been influenced by the supernatural events they’ve experienced. It’s all terribly experimental and heady, which we’ve obviously come to expect from these two, but there’s something crucial lacking in the communication of the big central ideas.
The longtime collaborators and friends have terrific chemistry as always, and it’s wonderful to see them leading a film together again. Benson and Moorhead have clearly given a lot of thought to the presentation of their wildly opposed characters, too. Levi is messy, with unruly hair, grungy clothes, and prominent tattoos while John is buttoned-up, with a shaved head. He is always neatly dressed and looks as though he’d balk at the idea of getting inked. There’s a great visual juxtaposition between them whenever they share the screen, which they thankfully do for much of the movie. Moreover, the fact Levi appears to be hiding something, but John turns out to be just as duplicitous if not more so is another neat touch. It also cannot be overstated that featuring casually gay and asexual, as Levi acknowledges he is midway through, protagonists is virtually unheard of and should be celebrated. However, on the other hand, the recent trend of introducing sober characters just to have them immediately fall off the wagon is lazy and offensive. There’s nothing to be gained from it, and filmmakers can do better, especially these two, who have dealt with similar issues with sensitivity elsewhere.
As for whether Something in the Dirt is scary, it falls under the same banner as the rest of the Benson-Moorhead oeuvre–more tense and unsettling than outright frightening. There’s a creepy shot of a mask on a sofa but the scariest moment by far sees John waking up on the ceiling, completely unsure how he got there. Otherwise, there’s a sense that something is off, and unexplainable events occur throughout, but that’s kind of it. Often, conversations drag on interminably, suggesting an improvisational element, and there’s a sense that a sharper edit might have made Something in the Dirt land a little harder–at just under two hours, it’s definitely too long–but the story is so expansive, it’s understandable the duo wanted the space to let it breathe. The film isn’t their best looking, though there is a lovely shot of Levi sitting on a balcony with fireworks going off behind him, which may be by design given the hefty subject matter.
These two don’t do anything just because, but their reasoning remains a bit too opaque here. As such, The Endless remains their magnum opus, but Something in the Dirt is certainly worth a watch in its own right.
WICKED RATING: 7/10
Director(s): Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead
Writer(s): Justin Benson
Stars: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead
Release date: November 4, 2022 (limited), November 22, 2022 (online)
Run Time: 115 minutes