Movies · Reviews

‘Something in the Dirt’ Goes Searching for Answers and the Mysteries to Match

Isolation makes for strange bedfellows in the latest from the directors of ‘Resolution’ and ‘Spring.’
Moorhead and Benson in Something In The Dirt Sundance
XYZ Films
By  · Published on January 28th, 2022

This review of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s Something in the Dirt is part of our 2022 Sundance Film Festival coverage. For more reviews and essays, visit our Sundance tab.

There’s something endlessly appealing about a mystery. Some are as simple as who licked the inside of a mayonnaise jar and how did they reach the bottom while others are more complex, dangerous, and complicated. The films of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead typically lean more towards the latter (although I guarantee they could spin that mayo mystery into a feature-length banger) with tales involving powerful entities, monstrous romances, UFO cults, and deadly designer drugs. Something in the Dirt sees them once again tackle a tale of the unknown, but this time it’s an all-encompassing mystery interwoven with conspiracies and revelations. As big as the ideas get, though, it’s probably their smallest and most personal film to date.

Levi Danube (Benson) is a recent transplant to Los Angeles, and while he’s succeeded at finding one of the cheapest apartments the city has to offer it comes with a different kind of cost. There’s something amiss as evidenced by strange shenanigans involving the closet door and weird symbols and equations written into the wall. Oh, and a chunky quartz crystal ashtray occasionally levitates five feet off the floor. Levi meets another tenant, the straight-laced John Daniels (Moorhead) who looks like he’s here to save (or damn) your soul but finds more interesting things to talk about than his fundamentalist leanings, and together they decide to tackle the mystery. Is it a supernatural entity? Does it involve aliens or LA cultists? Add in fires in the hills, earthquakes beneath their feet, and engine trouble whenever an airplane passes over, and it seems the city may be trying to tell them something.

Or not.

The biggest mystery surrounding Something in the Dirt may just be how Benson & Moorhead manage to pack this much wonder into a film that cost less than one day of catering on a Marvel movie. The bulk of the action unfolds in Levi’s apartment, but brief interludes in the form of documentary interviews punctuate the film after Levi and John declare they might just get rich if they can sell their spooky docu-series to Netflix. It’s a contained feature, but Benson & Moorhead don’t let it ever feel “cheap” and instead infuse it with some solid effects and a smart look taking full advantage of its otherwise minimalist approach. It’s fitting as, for all the talk about vast conspiracies and interdimensional meddling, the film is ultimately exploring far more intimate ideas.

It’s difficult being alone — in a city, during a pandemic — but sometimes being around others can be even harder. Both Levi and John have their own backstories, lives shaped by choices that have brought them here at this time and in this condo, and each completes the other in some ways as they embark on a mission to find answers to questions no one else is asking. It’s partly because no one else is in the apartment with them, but it’s also because the duo might just be finding (creating?) mysteries where none really exist. Both want answers even if their desires are fueled by different motivations, and what brings them together could also tear them apart.

Benson & Moorhead are the leads in Something in the Dirt, and they’ve enlisted some filmmaker friends in supporting roles including the likes of Sarah Adina Smith, C. Robert Cargill, Ariel Vida, Gille Klabin, and others. Our two leads, no stranger to acting in their own movies, have evolved as actors managing hints of emotion and menace alongside strong senses of humor. As dark as some beats get — the search for purpose where there is none can be pretty bleak — this is a very funny film too with pop culture riffs, humorous observations, recreation mishaps, and a clear chemistry between these two collaborators.

An asexual and an evangelical walk into an LA apartment for a beer and wind up exploring ideas on purpose and identity, planning and reality, gravity and electromagnetism, and the very suspicious possibility that cats are controlling their minds. Something in the Dirt is a funny, weird, personal film that feels daunting until you realize the fascinating chatter is just surface noise between two strangers trying to stay above the water line. What won’t surprise you is that it starts and ends in LA, the place where dreams, reality, and madness can often coalesce into onscreen magic.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.