Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Something in the Dirt (2022) dir. Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead

Now available on VOD


I first watched The Endless, one of the more well-known pieces from director-writer duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, during the pandemic. Even when I look back at the movies about Y2K and treatment of service workers, The Endless feels like it was the pandemic movie for me. Part of it is the semi-mirage that I have about cult documentaries being a big thing during the time. By numbers and trends, I’m sure it was really Tiger King that sparked the interest in wild reality, but I fondly remember my co-workers discussing their weekly Netflix selections through our stiff masks. The Endless, which is indeed about a cult and not necessarily a viral pandemic, was filmed in 2017. In its make-do production and innovative gadgets under a small budget, the film gives the impression that Benson and Moorhead also saw the same few documentaries that my co-workers did and decided to make a wacko sci-fi film, finances be damned.

Something in the Dirt, the duo’s latest film, is in fact a pandemic-y movie filmed during the pandemic. Sticking to what they know about the paranormal spooky business with murderous tinges, Benson and Moorhead star as neighbors Levi and John living in LA. Levi is somewhat of a straggler grasping for something to anchor him to this city (or maybe to escape from). John is a divorced wedding photographer and math teacher. They meet in their outside common area and begin a benign friendship when John offers furniture that he was planning on ridding. However, a mysterious thing happens in Levi’s apartment: a hunk of crystal floats in the air, shining an eerie iridescence before it dully drops to the floor. They then try to create a documentary attempting to capture this phenomenon in hopes of monetization. In their earnest pursuit of crafting something thoughtful, they indulge in a ton of research about anything and everything related to this topic and share it in a testimony-style format in addition to their footage of this crystal along with other strange happenings.

As leery conspirators with STEM backgrounds do, John begins to link historical context, mathematical theorems, and personal history (such as a mysterious insignia on a cover of a used textbook that he found years ago), to the floating crystal. However, he dismisses Levi’s observations and hypotheses in front of the camera, but does it in a way that you can imagine couples who had just arrived to your house after a tense argument would talk to each other. As they approach this documentary, we can see that their time together brings up concern of how much they actually know and like each other.

In a way, Dirt is a finished product in the way that The Blair Witch Project is. But instead of leaving the narrative in the hands of the mystery, the development of the documentary becomes increasingly as pertinent as the answer to these occurrences. To call it a parody of documentary filmmaking would be an oversimplification. The two act more erratically, which could be attributed to the exposure — either to the phenomenon or to each other.  Levi and John bring in experts of certain fields to contribute legitimate substance in between their shaky footage, but the shadow of doubt is cast larger, causing rifts between the team (by the time the documentary is “finished,” they are onto their sixth film editor). Where sightings of the Blair Witch largely propel forward, Dirt digs further down on the manipulation and coercion of filmmaking.

The admiration in the films created by Benson and Moorhead is rooted in the feeling that there are no limits to what they want to make. As expected, Benson and Moorhead put a lot of detail into their dialogue and props to make us believe that Levi and John are really shaped by this (incidentally, I was familiar with their appearances in The Endless and other director profiles and found it somewhat amusing that they transformed into each other for Dirt). The book that John references, Geometry of Magnetism, is not a real book (at least according to Google Search), but the task of introducing a meaningful symbol and weaving it throughout the film makes anyone want to search variations of “Is this real?” after the film. Though I haven’t seen the episodes yet, I can’t imagine seeing their contributions in Loki glow as strongly as when they are working on their hands and knees. Their needs in bringing science and paranormal together illuminates the notion that they care about making films believable to the audience, even under the guise of a documentary falling apart. Dirt is a mediation of the pandemic both on-screen and off-screen. The film reflects on the time that we had listening to crackpot theories on the Internet — and their boost to mainstream attention through formalized media or TikToks — while also representing that. Even after the pandemic is declared to be over, we can find inklings of long COVID outside of medical signs and symptoms.

Something in the Dirt
dir. Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead
116 min.

Now available digitally and on demand

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