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DIRECTED BY: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead
FEATURING: Aaron Moorhead, Justin Benson
PLOT: A bartender and a divorcee witness supernatural phenomena and fall into an increasingly disturbing—and increasingly compromised—investigation into patterns, aliens, multiple dimensions, and secret societies as they try to come to terms with their own reality.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: Returning to their Endless musings, this filmmaking duo once again fuse unsettling metaphysics with comedy-tinged chamber drama, creating a fantasy which straddles the cosmically significant and the piercingly mundane.
COMMENTS: Levi has the aura of a past-his-prime surfer bro, crashing through life as he tries to stay ahead of an unfortunate criminal past. He awakens in a spartan apartment, crummy even by dirt-cheap Los Angeles standards, and encounters another tenant in the side alley. Bumming a cigarette, Levi learns in brief that this is John, who recently separated from his husband—and so is new to the whole “smoking” thing. They hit it off, more or less, despite John being a bit stilted and over-eager and Levi being disconcertingly cryptic; is Levi actually a bartender? And what’s this “charity” work he mentions? After John drops off some old furniture in a neighborly gesture, the trap is sprung for their strange investigation: there’s a play of light through a crystal ashtray, and as Levi enters from the kitchen, both men witness it hovering.
The LA setting and pervasive mystery-cum-layered-conspiracies brings to mind Under the Silver Lake, but this digs more deeply through time and space while achieving a personal, claustrophobic tone. Nearly all the action—supernatural and otherwise—occurs in the two-room apartment. (Well, three-room, I suppose, but we never see an oft-mentioned bedroom.) While John and Levi pursue answers to the localized irregularities (suspects come to include an ancient Pythagorean Society, pre-historic alien visitors, and brain maggots from cats), the pair attempt to document their findings. However, both are prone to lying and to showmanship. What is on-screen is unreliable, and there may be nothing really going on outside the norm.
But that’s the point. This is actually a film about two men, reaching middle age, having achieved nothing. John is professionally washed-up and a member of an evangelical apocalypse cult, Levi is a registered sex offender (for reasons both amusing and tragically bureaucratic), burdened by guilt over his responsibility for his sister’s unfortunate downfall. The exploration of the mystery around them acts as a vehicle for their own self-revelation. A poignant scene near the finale has the pair of them recording the other, going blow-by-blow about how they’re both losers who have either destroyed their lives or never built one in the first place; as they exchange accusations, every item in the apartment floats around ominously.
The cinematic world of Something in the Dirt exists within The Endless‘ troubling confines, and the ultimate fate that Levi faces echoes that risked by the two brothers in their earlier film (itself an expansion of the vision first laid out in Resolution). The implication is that the inscrutable entity which is playing with time and space is now broadening its grip. The nonsensical conspiracy-fluff behind the rabbit holes within rabbit holes is interesting (“We’re not going into Dan Brown territory, are we?” a skeptical Levi inquires of John early on), but the meat of Benson and Moorhead’s message is closer to the philosophy found in Steppenwolf. We are doomed to repeat and re-digest this farce that is our life; but this condemnation brings with it our hope for salvation. Eventually, we might figure out the true pattern, and everything will make sense.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Once again, Benson and Moorhead prove that they can produce a stellar, original film with a tiny fraction of the budget of bigger Hollywood filmmakers. The movie landscape is a far better, weird, and beautiful place with them in it.”–Chris Evangelista, Slash Film (festical screening)
One thought on “APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SOMETHING IN THE DIRT (2022)”
I saw this as part of Sundance and considered it the only film at that festival worth watching. It seems like a real return to form for Benson and Moorhead. The subtle atmosphere of weirdness and creeping dread is really well done (arguably the third paragraph of the comments is a bit of a spoiler).
In the Q&A after the screening they talked about everything from the world-building behind their films to their use of sunlight, and I was struck by how generous they were in sharing their process with the audience.
I would say they definitely deserve a place in the list/apocrypha for their consistent originality and committment to creative, low budget filmmaking .