Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have proven that they have an absolute knack for weird non-linear stories that twist as much as they turn with their work on Marvel’s Moon Knight and the phenomenal sci-fi horror Archive 81 and more importantly their films Spring and Synchronic. And at this Fantastic Fest, the directing duo are back with Something in the Dirt. It’s something weird, something hilarious, and something that absolutely skewers the way people fall down internet rabbit holes and chase a bit of fame along the way.
The duo star as John (Aaron Moorhead) and Levi (Justin Benson), two Los Angeles fuck-ups who become fast friends after Levi bums a cigarette in the courtyard of the LA apartment complex he’s moving into a month before leaving town. While moving furniture into Levi’s long abandoned unit, the two discover a quartz crystal the two have been using as an ashtray levitating on its own and emitting beams of light. Scared at first, when the phenomenon repeats days later, the pair decide to try their hand at shooting a documentary to sell to a streaming platform. Both pushing for the fame and much-needed cash that capturing the paranormal events can provide, the two embark on a weird journey where their personalities clash.
While John, a guy with Ayn Rand on his shelf (which should speak volumes about his temperament), stays completely focused on capturing the phenomena on camera and finding something larger to make more money, Levi is just a golden retriever. A nice guy that everything bad seems to happen to, Levi wants to be a good friend and lets John call the shots which often involves John gaslighting and putting him down. The way the two exist as polar opposites, one pushing and one the other being pushed, creates an uncomfortable tension that starts as humorous, and grows concerning as the quips get meaner.
The Charlie Day meme brought to life, the LA pair embrace conspiracy theories and chase podcasts, ancient aliens, TED Talks, subreddits, and just about any piece of pseudo-science they can get their hands on. While John is fueled by a need to make a name for himself and prove his hair-brained theories, Levi becomes increasingly concerned with the path they’re on. Levi becomes scared as John’s real intentions and “do anything that needs to be done” attitude gets more and more aggressive and the strange phenomena begin to affect the world deeply.
Purposeful in the way it meanders, Something in the Dirt manages to capture the way people dig their own rabbit holes and the quick ways media consumption and the want to contribute can make everything go sideways. By choosing to incorporate elements of documentary style, Benson and Moorhead give the audience a small reprieve from the deepening unhinged hole that John propels the duo through. Presented as laughing at the duo instead of with them, it works. It’s these little moments that build an ominous tone to what naturally begins to feel like a comedy of errors that branches into a mean kind of controlled chaos.
Something in the Dirt feels like a satirical take on conspiracy theories and the role content creation and social media play in them spreading. But when you peel back that first layer you find a strong and rather nuanced look at loneliness, trying to get out of it, and the denial that you can spiral in throughout that process. While gravitational and electromagnetic phenomena are the catalyst in the film John and Levi are two lonely men who really only have each other. At least until they metaphorically and emotionally rip each other apart.
While Benson and Moorhead’s direction and writing are definitely something to celebrate, it’s their performances in the third act are emotional, intimate, and deeply emotional. Particularly, Moorheads’s performance as John has an angry meanness that is looking to rip into someone to free himself from his own disappointments. It’s palpable. In turn, Benson’s reactions as Levi in the moments of John’s worst outbursts are also heartbreaking, to the point that you want to reach into the screen and save him. Not because his life is in danger, well maybe, but because no one deserves to be made feel small. Both men are emotional actors and I could watch them for hours.
Something in the Dirt manages to be funny, intimate, and weird all at the same time. It builds anticipation and skewers conspiracies. But more importantly, no matter how unhinged the storyline becomes, the directing duo maintains a focus and throughline that makes sure all of it makes sense. Sure, we don’t know what’s real, what’s fabricated, or anything by the end, but somehow, we know the emotion and meaning behind it all. Ultimately, Something in the Dirt is a mesmerizing descent you can’t look away from.
Something in the Dirt screened as part of the Fantastic Fest film programming.
Something in the Dirt
- Rating - 8/108/10
Ultimately, Something in the Dirt is a mesmerizing descent you can’t look away from.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.