At one point during the new movie Something in the Dirt, the characters make a joke about Dan Brown books. Basically, they’re worried the movie they are making (in the movie we’re watching) is too much like The Da Vinci Code because both are filled with so many weird coincidences and problems to be solved. And it kind of is. Something in the Dark is a small scale labyrinth of sci-fi ideas, crisscrossed back, forth, up and down. Ideas that are used to frame both a larger mystery and a burgeoning friendship, which make it much more interesting than a Dan Brown book, even if it doesn’t wrap up as smoothly.
Written, directed, and starring Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson (Synchronic, Spring), Something in the Dirt follows Levi (Benson) a new tenant in a run down Los Angeles apartment, and his neighbor Joe (Moorhead) who has lived there for years. The pair quickly strike up a friendship and then partner up to start filming strange occurrences that begin to happen in Levi’s apartment, which has been vacant for a decade and has walls covered with weird math problems.
So basically we’re watching a film about people making a film, but also the film we’re watching is their finished film. Which can be a little confusing at times, almost by design. Joe and Levi’s storyline starts at the beginning but is quickly crosscut with talking head experts, including Joe and Levi themselves, speaking about it in retrospect, adding multiple layers of intrigue and suspense on top of what’s happening.
What’s happening is a bunch of really spooky weird stuff. Things floating, mysterious noises, and strange lights. Levi and Joe start to document it all hoping for some kind of Blair Witch Project success. Each new discovery opens a new set of mysteries, and eventually the rabbit hole the pair go down gets so deep they, and you, lose track of what’s real, what’s not, and what’s important. Which is basically the moment Something in the Dirt really sinks in its hooks. This movie isn’t about these weird mysteries. The weird mysteries are a way to tell a story of friendship. A modern friendship based on love of films, weird Internet theories, and long ultra nerdy discussions about things that ultimately don’t make much sense.
Instantly the whole movie is reframed. Levi and Joe’s search for truth is also a search for truth within themselves and between each other. About building a trust and respect that keeps a friendship together. Or, at least, that’s how I saw it, which ends up being the most exciting thing about Something in the Dirt. The movie has so many threads to pick at you get the sense no single reading of the film is right or wrong. Benson and Moorhead have created a film with so many breadcrumbs, each viewer can surely make it their own.
And somehow, the pair do that while also starring in the movie, which is damned near miraculous. From the basic fact that they wrote, shot, and directed this and other films, it’s obvious Benson and Moorhead can make movies. But they are fabulous actors too. Their characters, Levi and Joe, are fully realized, relatable, and flawed. Characters with dreams, fears and real complexity below the surface as well as on it. Both performances are truly excellent and become the glue that holds this big spiderweb of thematic possibility and mystery together.
With its basic, real world setting, and tiny cast and crew, Something in the Dirt feels like Primer meets that movie the characters make fun of: The Da Vinci Code. It’s two friends, figuring out weird, science and sci-fi mysteries, often through long, dense conversations, which ultimately lead to them change dramatically as people. It’s a film that will almost certainly reward repeat viewings and, even on a first viewing, will continue to stay with you after its ended.
Something in the Dirt had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. No word on a release date.
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