Written by Justin Benson
Paranoia is a drug; highly addictive and almost therapeutic in its poison. It’s a difficult habit to shake off, hence its use as the building blocks for successful horror, sci-fi and thriller pieces of cinema.
And while Something in the Dirt has the bones of a gritty DIY low-budget piece, it ripples with a vibrant thought process and style which turns us the other way. The idiom of entering the film with an open mind is a tired expression, one we’re about to dust off. Because there’s no possible way to appreciate, understand, or even interact with Benson and Moorhead’s Something in the Dirt otherwise; it requires audiences to relinquish control and trust in the process and accept that from the offset – they haven’t the foggiest what’s going on.
And neither do our protagonists. Two guys, apathetic to the world surrounding them, struggle in the daily routine of this mild post-apocalyptic world. It’s a not-too-distant world with low-flying surveillance, birds dropping dead, coyotes roaming the streets, and a consistent presence of smoke, heat, or industrial impact. Co-director and star Justin Benson’s script never furnishes audiences with the entirety of detail; though given the entirety of filming occurred under strict-lockdown circumstances it’s not entirely unfeasible to make guesses.
Recognisable, Benson and co-star and co-director Aaron Moorhead have already established an impressive backlog of science-fiction and horror aficionados for over a decade, with indie projects The Endless, Synchronic, and Spring finding acclaim and fans. And Something in the Dirt captures the pair’s emerging auteurism where the film’s obsession trips its way hap-hazard (though very cleverly and tightly) through an almost amateur and spur-of-the-moment sense of consciousness.
The pair play the apathetic men – though couldn’t be further apart in character; John, a gay evangelical Christian, divorced, and seemingly wealthy without having a job to speak of. And Levi, played by Benson, is a bartender on the sex-offenders registry but armed with a (truthful?) story as to how it’s all a misunderstanding. Their initial meeting in the courtyard of Levi’s new apartment complex sets up the film rather pitch-perfectly with the pair’s consistent, though peculiar chemistry and draw to one another’s actions and thoughts. It also beautifully illustrates the lack of questioning, and the lack of coherency, as John sits with a blood-stained dress, acknowledged but never dissected. It’s all just accepted.
From the drop of the beat, the paranormal/extra-terrestrial/hallucinogenic experience springs forth through the film. Opening with Levi’s first night in the apartment, the closet door refusing to stay closed, the heat emanating intense. As the strange occurrences begin – the pair do what any downtrodden and bored person would; they film it intending to sell, and thus the ethics of it all begins to twist and distort the two men’s motivations. An otherwise simplistic film morphs here, where Moorhead’s cinematography works to heighten the otherworldly happenings of Levi’s apartment, all composed to a tight and often eerie score from Jimmy LaValle.
Transitioning into a mockumentary of sorts, Something in the Dirt filters the prophetic and mystical chatter with sharp critiques and cutting personal remarks between the two men – John, in particular, demonstrating a more visceral desire for connection escalating the threat to a more human one. And as experts, witnesses, and bystanders enter the film to bulk out the character rosts, the stylistic choices do begin to collide with one another as the dramatics of the script take away from the mockumentary which, at times, desperately wants to be Found Footage.
Moorhead and Benson craft a keenly shot and directed film, but their performances are what entice audiences to remain – even with the twists and shrouded mystery; at the base of it, all are performances of genuine melancholy and sincerity. Through it all, Something in the Dirt retains a touching dedication to its story, and to the art of filmmaking as a practice of both hobbyists and community-based; grabbing a hand-held and making something with friends.
Genuine Performance of Sincerity and Melancholy
Something in the Dirt is available on Blu-ray and Digital download.