Philadelphia Film Festival Review – Something in the Dirt

Philadelphia Film Festival Review – Something in the Dirt

For my money, there is no more exciting voice in sci-fi cinema (and cinema in general) than the duo of Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, longtime friends and collaborators whose unique brand of mind-melting madness has made each and every new film of theirs absolutely unmissable. Their latest, Something in the Dirt, a killer paranoid freakout flick, ranks amongst their best, showing a marked growth in every department of filmmaking craft.

Shot during quarantine, Something in the Dirt marks a return of sorts to the DIY aesthetic that first put these incomparable storytellers on the map. The story takes place mostly in a single location (a dilapidated Los Angeles apartment) and features a very limited cast (Benson & Moorhead are our co-leads). The setup is simple: two oddball loners witness an expressly paranormal event — a crystal ash tray levitates and produces a haunting refracted light — and decide to make a documentary about their experience.

The execution is not so simple. It almost defies explanation, but I’ll do my best. To put is as simply as possible, the film we are watching both is and isn’t the final product of their collaboration. There are talking heads, B-roll, reenactments (in which the in-world characters also star), and a wildly unsettling score. The metatextual elements are employed haphazardly, resulting in a large-scale feeling of an unreliable narrator. This isn’t to say that the film is being deceitful, however, but rather that it evokes through craft the same paranoia into which our protagonists are actively descending.

As is standard with their work, Dirt is consistently funny, with a comedic rhythm reminiscent of the inside jokes we share with our friends. It’s not necessarily the material that makes you laugh, but the sense of timing and a lived-in feel. Watching the characters shoot the shit, I get the sense that their rapport is similar to that of the men playing them.

The same holds true for the dramatic elements. Even though our “heroes” are a couple of bona fide weirdos, both with cryptic backgrounds that we can’t fully trust, the empathy comes easy, making it difficult to dismiss their experiences as the ravings of crazy people. The mystery they’ve cracked into is compelling, and both men have a different enough lens through which they view it that they address the viewers’ questions almost by accident while they poke and prod at the cosmic implications of existence. The answers don’t necessarily come easy, and in some cases not at all, but the magic here is that these ambiguities don’t leave the film feeling incomplete. A rewatch is imminent and welcome. I cannot wait.

Something in the Dirt would make a fantastic double feature with one of my favorite found footage freakouts, Murder Death Koreatown, linked not just by location, but by the clever way they both explore the notions of loneliness, death, and the inherent falsity that comes with pointing a camera at something. Also, both flicks make me want to gather up my friends and make a movie of our own.

Directed by Aaron Moorhead, Justin Benson

Written by Aaron Moorhead, Justin Benson

Starring Aaron Moorhead, Justin Benson, Sarah Adina Smith, Wanjiru M. Njendu

Rated R, 116 minutes

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