Reviewing this new film from Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, I’m struggling to know where to begin; so I look at how I started my notes. The first thing I wrote in one and a half pages of notes about Something in the Dirt was “lobster the size of Danny DeVito”. I just had to write down that mad little phrase; and to be honest, nothing was quite as down to Earth after that point, so perhaps it’s not the best way to order my thoughts after all.
I have a couple of standard ways to open a review if I’m stuck, the simplest being to stick to a basic outline: story, characters, style, opinion. But with Something in the Dirt the story isn’t so much about what happens as about what could be happening; there’s definitely a lot more to the characters and style here than there is story; and if you want any kind of intellectual opinion about this mind-blowing piece of work, you might need to be a little patient. So here’s the other way I start an article: I’ll tell you how the film made me feel, and hopefully I can also explain why along the way.
I was privileged to catch Something in the Dirt at a pre-Sundance virtual press screening on Wednesday evening; or should I say (living as I do several hours round the world) in the very early hours of Thursday morning. By the time the film finished, I felt like I’d been up all night catching up with old friends; correction: getting lazily stoned, laughing and philosophizing about the world’s mysteries with old friends. Yet when I talked to Benson and Moorhead back in late 2020 (ostensibly about their last film, Synchronic) Benson told me “this is the darkest thing we’ve ever done”. It genuinely didn’t feel dark at the time of watching it: it felt full of wonder and laid-back fun. The darkness was there under the surface, and the two main characters definitely had different attitudes towards it. (Perhaps this reflects the pandemic conditions that the film was made under, and yet COVID was not mentioned at all during Something in the Dirt.)
Here’s the scenario: if you see something odd, you might brush it off as imagination, stress or a trick of the light. If two people see something odd, well in the 2020s that means picking up a camera. Likable but flaky Levi (Justin Benson) is moving into a temporary apartment and makes friends with mathematically-minded John (Aaron Moorhead) who lives nearby, and they click over cigarettes and conversation. When they see something impossible—no other word for it—happening right in front of their eyes, that click becomes a firm connection: they may have contrasting (occasionally clashing) personalities, but this is a shared experience, and together they agree to make something fun and possibly profitable out of it. But you know, if you’re going to film something, you have to look into it, try to understand it; it could be helpful to understand who you’re working with too. Research and digging are only helpful as long as you can see where the line is between information and speculation; curiosity leads to more questions than answers.
OK now suddenly I’m wondering if this really sounds like sci-fi, and it is a subtle blend, like their other films to date. There’s usually a buddy drama, with some degree of sci-fi or horror in the background and a touch of humour, suspense or romance to provide the tone. In Something in the Dirt, all of these (well except the romance) are present, though which ones the viewer sees may depend on how you hold the film up to the light. It really wouldn’t surprise me if my experience is different when I see it again, or if I see it with someone else: it was full of nuances, complexities and detail; yes, despite having such a comparatively slight plot.
Alongside the narrative of John and Levi attempting to turn the phenomena they observed into an amateur documentary, there are countless little images of family scenes, squirrels, mysteries, historical moments and many other things. I don’t mean these were in the background like Stone did in Natural Born Killers; but rather that the scene flashed briefly to these images while the dialogue continued, like side notes to a thesis. Sometimes there were also slightly longer diversions from the plot in the form of interviews about what the pair were doing; I can’t say who with, and there was minimal context given, but these clips gave the film a brief jolt of seriousness before the humour returned. (Oh and it was funny: I laughed more times to this film than all the other films they’ve made put together.) As the film went on, the supplementary fragments included animation, like hyperactive geometry and seemed to reflect how carried away (at least one of) the pair were becoming.
I’m inclined to think that much of this was Benson and Moorhead’s compensation for the production, team and travel limitations that came with the COVID pandemic. After all, as Moorhead told me during that last interview, “The Endless had a crew of like twenty-five, and this one has a crew of three. And we’re two of them.” Something in the Dirt would have been a much simpler, shorter and probably duller film without the injection of this new approach, and (although I have to confess it felt just a little gimmicky here and there) the whole scrapbook of images and clips added some richness to the film and showed a new spark. Perhaps a little more than the earlier films, this one does tend to be dialogue-heavy, but this is where I found another benefit of the visual layer, balancing that out effectively.
There is naturally a lot more to the film’s overall style; Benson and Moorhead had a style of their own before enhancing it via Something in the Dirt, after all. Almost all of it takes place in bright sunlight, with some interesting uses of lighting (sometimes quite pertinent to the plot). In the early parts of the film, Aaron Moorhead’s cinematography explores broadly, with low down close-ups and shots of low-flying planes in contrast; though as the film goes on, it becomes much more introspective. Fans of The Endless will be pleased to know there are a couple of fleeting nods to that film (or at least that’s how I saw/heard them), and The Album Leaf provided a spookadelic score again. Oh, and there were some loving gazes over Los Angeles architecture here and there too.
I can’t help thinking that Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson had fun making this film (especially thinking back to the scene with the amazing Halloween mask), and basically stuck two fingers up to the pandemic. As Moorhead said in their Sundance promo video, they decided there was no point waiting for the pandemic to be over: “We’re the guys that would say go make a movie, so we had to go do it.” They surely had a lark with dialogue about “Rose Croutons” and “interdimensional fruit”, and must have had to rein each other in now and then from getting silly with the (sometimes scary) concept of ideas blending in with reality. Having seen several other films made during (and about) various lockdowns, I really relish this outlook. I used to watch Mulder and Scully half my life ago, and now these two friends have given us their own two-hour-long “I want to believe” poster.
Something in the Dirt has its world premiere at Sundance Film Festival, January 2022.