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- Reviewed from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival
Having created some of the most compelling English-language genre work of the last decade, American filmmaking pair Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead shift focus and form with Something in the Dirt.
For their fifth feature as writer-directors (who also produce, edit and star), the duo has dropped the time travel concerns of The Endless (2017) and Synchronic (2019) and the monstrous creatures of Resolution (2012) and Spring (2014). Proffered instead is a slippery, beguiling meta mystery with supernatural elements, rather than the horror/sci-fi cross-pollination viewers have come to expect.
When surfer-ish bartender Levi Danube (Benson) moves into a Los Angeles apartment above photographer John Daniels (Moorhead), the odd couple strike up a fast friendship. Levi cadges a smoke from John and suddenly, they see a clear glass ashtray begin to levitate in Levi’s living room. Iridescent beams of light flood onto the crummy apartment’s walls as the stunned men rush to record the evidently paranormal happening, figuring that they can make a hefty sum from flogging a documentary to Netflix.
From the simple premise of two nascent pals trying to document a strange event and understand it, the narrative and dialogue of the film diverges into multiple tangents (even if much of the action is contained within the apartment).
John is a former maths genius who likes to delve into complicated discussions about equations and ratios – at one point, the two remark that their chat has turned into something akin to “a Dan Brown novel”. Symbols appear around their Laurel Canyon neighbourhood as talk about masons, portals, parasites and conspiracy theories loop into one dense in-film mythology, a mix of history and hearsay.
Watching audiences may not have heard of, say, Jack Parsons – a real-life LA rocket scientist and follower of occultist Aleister Crowley – but his interest in science and dark magic are at the core of Something in the Dirt, so it makes sense when he’s mentioned. All that said, both men are seemingly unreliable narrators. It’s difficult to follow what our protagonists might be thinking. Occasional talking head interview fragments from the in-film documentary created by John and Levi offer some clarity. But only so much.
Though Benson and Moorhead barely touch on temporal matters here, one may recall Shane Carruth’s time-travel puzzler Primer (2004) while viewing. Both are low-budget head-spinners that leave viewers in a rare state of satisfied bafflement.