Words By

Anton Bitel


Something in the Dirt – first-look review

Filmmaking duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead discover an ominous paranormal entity in their meta fifth feature.

In Something in the Dirt, the fifth feature from Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, we hear wind chimes before we see anything. These chimes hang outside a somewhat dingy apartment building in Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon, where feckless bartender Levi Danube (Benson) has just moved in.

There he meets his downstairs neighbour, the recently divorced John Daniels (Moorhead), and as these two lost, drifting strangers together witness a paranormal event in Levi’s apartment, they team up to make a film, hoping to capture the physics-defying phenomenon on film, to document their investigation into its significance, and maybe even to cash in on their labours. From early on, we learn that one of these two men is going to die.

The gravity of that impending death serves to weigh down these mismatched buddies’ bantering comedy as they – and we with them – hang out and fill in the empty spaces of their apartments and their lives with all manner of wildly implausible explanatory theories (time travel, parallel universes, parasitic mind manipulation, Pythagorean number theory, alien portals and occult LA history).

As Benson and Moorhead play men equally engaged in making a film – for which the characters too eventually settle on the title Something In The Dirt, and which was shot in the filmmakers’ actual apartments – the viewer is challenged to sort the real from the fictive in this dizzyingly reflexive hall of mirrors.

This quest for truth is further complicated as we discover that, in their struggle to find meaning, Levi and John themselves also readily deny and deceive, (self-)mythologise and hide secrets, even fabricating parts of their own documentary, so that the very film we are watching becomes ever more destabilised and disorienting.

Not long into Something in the Dirt, those wind chimes heard at the beginning (and end) are shown to be a hanging set of Matryoshka dolls – an apt symbol for a film offering a series of nested narratives whose different layers fold in on one another. Falling somewhere between Stefan Avalos and Lance Weller’s The Last Broadcast and David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake, this is all at once unnerving found (and partly faked) footage, eccentric LA neo-noir and deliriously overcoded meta murder mystery, where an odd couple’s endlessly edited and re-edited recordings conceal as much as they reveal, and the question of what happened in the apartment, and eventually to one of the filmmakers, ramifies into a broader existential enigma.

All the mad metaphysics come rooted in character. For John and Levi, both flawed fuckups, are seeking to find – or possibly lose – themselves in their wild goose chase, and to construct exciting intrigue and adventure (“those magical LA moments”, as Levi calls them) from the pathetic banality of their lives, even as their friendship frays and falls apart. “Something happened,” interviewee Dr Rita Miller (filmmaker Sarah Adina Smith) concludes, It remains unclear just what though, as Benson and Moorhead keep their bodied buried in this city of dreams, fantasies and filmmakings. Jimmy Lavalle’s chiming score holds it all together.

Published 23 Jan 2022

Tags: Aaron Moorhead Justin Benson Sundance Film Festival

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