Creative multi-hyphenates Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have a fascination with the line between the explained and the unexplainable, crafting stories that walk the line on a razor’s edge. This continues with their fifth feature film, Something in the Dirt, having its world premiere at Sundance Film Festival 2022, a film which blends comedy, thriller, mystery, science fiction, and documentary into only the kind of feature Benson and Moorhead can pull off. A tale comprised of incredible suspense and DIY creativity, Something in the Dirt feels like a convergence point of all of their prior projects while serving as the next great step in their catalogue.
Amid lockdown in L.A., Levi (Benson) rents himself a no-lease apartment in order to make his departure from the city he couldn’t find a foothold in as easy as possible. The morning after moving in, Levi meets John (Moorhead), a neighbor in the building, and the two seem to hit it off. Hanging out in Levi’s apartment, the two experience something unexplainable and set about finding answers. Following a path that’s a mix of fact and faith, the two document as much as they can in hopes that the answer will lead to their own salvations: financial and personal.
In a recent Q&A with Chris Lindahl of IndieWire, the first Benson and Moorhead had conducted for the film, the two described Dirt as a genre they hadn’t tapped yet. I’m here to tell you that they put the kind of spin on the documentary genre that is one layer of storytelling on top of another until it topples (not from weight) but because there’s nowhere else to go. Like their last two films, The Endless (2017) and Synchronic (2019), Dirt works on repeat viewings, the notions and ideas you might’ve missed at first being lost amid the freshness of the tale. Personally, if not for (a) watching it at home and (b) the ability to rewind, I’d have sat in the theater consumed with the idea that I’d missed something important. That’s how rich the film is in its detail work. A sharp eye, for instance, will catch a glimpse of a building’s sign reading “Rustic Inn,” a referential joke to the production company Rustic Films of which producing partner David Lawson comprises with Benson and Moorhead (who was the only other person on the shoot, by the way). My favorite in-joke, and I’m sure not the only one, is a reference to Camp Arcadia on a banner with very familiar iconography. On the one hand, references like these make it feel as though Benson and Moorhead are creating their own large-scale playground in the way that Stephen King uses Derry, Maine, or Castle Rock, creating a real sense of tangibility to the world and the rules their characters must follow. On the other, given that they’ve developed a strong fan base, it’s a way of winking at the audience and maintaining a certain level of joy into their work.
The discovery of connection to other works enhances how audiences receive Dirt because it makes the doomsday theories and other scientific explanations spouted throughout feel more solid as the creative duo have established that the rules of their reality are far different than that of other stories grounded in “reality.” For instance, The Endless and first film Resolution (2012) involve time manipulation via outside forces, while Synchronic involves traveling in time via controlled substance. What happens in Dirt is a matter of speculation and that’s part of what makes it so wonderful to experience. In most documentaries, the narrative is exactly what you think it is when you hit start. The method of storytelling may differ (2021’s No Ordinary Man conducted reenactments using trans actors as a means of exploring the possible emotions in the life of the subject vs. frequent talking heads in 2021’s The Hunt for Planet B) but, ultimately, all documentaries are a journey of the subject. In this case, however, the sleight of hand that Benson and Moorhead typically invoke begins once the movie starts. Trust nothing, believe everything. Because of the precise structure, I found myself pulled into the film in the same way as in 2021’s The Penny Black, a documentary that started off as an exploration of a weird unbelievable story that turned into a possible con story all its own. The biggest difference between the two being that one is a serious documentary and the other faux. But if you go into a Benson and Moorhead film thinking you’ll get the straight truth from the jump, well, I’m sure they have a bridge to sell you.
Here’s the thing, though, even once you’re fully aware of the meta format, you won’t care. Benson’s script and his screenwork with Moorhead is so good, the little details that make up the explanations for why what happens happens so plausible in their relative insanity, that they’ll have their hooks in you well before things truly go off the deep end (in true Benson/Moorhead fashion). Keep in mind that Dirt comes from the minds that gave us a rope tied to the sky and a conquistador charging at Anthony Mackie in a swamp, so when you sign up for their film, you have to be ready for anything. But more so than the previous films, Dirt is grounded in the kind of reality where perception is everything, and the moment you start to think you’re in control of your reality, that’s often when it breaks. This is what makes watching the kind-hearted Levi hope against hope that their documentation of their experience will provide him a means of doing something of value just a tad heartbreaking. Is it that the documentary is a second chance or is the possibility of there being something more to this plain of existence the second chance? As a two-hander, both literally from a technical sense and metaphorically from a narrative one, Benson is both the audience’s introduction to this story and the carrier of the heart of it within Levi. Credit to Benson for being the emotional core of the film, a naïveté that’s hard to convey with any authenticity, yet he does. For his part, Moorhead’s purpose is the opposite of Benson’s. His John is cold, calculating, and scientifically-minded. Moorhead plays him as driven in the same way as someone who refuses to let another else take the wheel of their life will ride a bomb to its targeted point just to be able to hold onto the belief that it was their decision to do so. Unlike in The Endless, Moorhead offers a performance that’s distant and almost cruel at times, but, nevertheless, mesmerizing.
Where credit is truly due is not how Benson and Moorhead make an indie film *feel* bigger, they’ve demonstrated they can work with virtually any budget to tell a compelling story, it’s how they thread the needle between genres without ever losing the balance. The film is funny naturally where it generates laughs, the dive into science and conspiracy is compelling, and the aspects that give you the willies have enough evidence to make your hair stand on end. Benson’s script doesn’t just tell a story, it’s an adventure within a larger world containing unknown thrills waiting to be explored, yet it feels as natural as the escalation of The Goonies (1985) or Big Trouble in Little China (1986). The only difference is that the deeper you probe, the more the line between fabrication and science fiction is blurred.
Frankly, this film may be their best work yet.
Screening during the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
For more information, head to the official Something in the Dirt Sundance film page.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.