Sundance Review: Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead's 'Something In The Dirt'

Sundance Review: Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead's 'Something In The Dirt'
Aaron Moorhead

The film had its premiere in the U.S. Dramatic Competition lineup at the Sundance Film Festival.

The authors of this trippy tale have categorically denied that they were influenced by the QAnon movement when they were writing, directing, or perhaps just channeling the twisting, turning phantasmagoria that is the sometimes maddeningly ambiguous Something in the Dirt.

From anyone else, this might seem disingenuous. But Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have some form in the conspiracy department—notably their cryptic 2017 sci-fi drama, The Endless, in which two escapees from a UFO suicide cult return to the fold in an attempt to find closure. A hell of a lot cheaper, and filmed without interference during the playground of solitude that was the lockdown, Something In The Dirt is something of a reset for the directing duo, a palate cleanser after the needlessly convoluted Synchronic and a return to what it is they do best: garage punk sci-fi of the kind not much seen since Alex Cox’s Repo Man in 1984.

As with The Endless, the directors also play the leads, with Benson as Levi Danube, a bartender with a shady past who has just stumbled upon a bargain no-strings apartment next to John Daniels (Moorhead), a photographer who has just split from his husband. The two guys hit it off, and during a lazy afternoon’s banter they are astonished to see strange lights flooding the property and anti-gravitational activity causing an ashtray, itself a strange crystal that just seems to have appeared from nowhere, to rise up and hover in the air. Behaving as Moorhead and Benson’s characters are wont to do, Levi and John decide to make a documentary about these bizarre events, and the documentary itself turns out to be just as full of mysteries.

An awareness of the pair’s previous films is not essential. But it does help to explain the stream-of-consciousness way in which the story evolves, dotted with Super-8 and video home movie clips that look uncannily like they could be their own home movies (which, it turns out, is because they are).

At first, the thread is Los Angeles itself, why strange things happen there, and how far back these things go. But then the filmmakers pull the first of several rugs by revealing that the film we are watching is actually a recreation, a fact discussed by a number of talking heads (confusingly, some are real people who worked on the film), who talk about John and Levi’s decision to play themselves.

At this point, we are really through the looking glass, and the film’s near two-hour running time starts to dilute the focus as the rain of esoterica continues to pour down. But, to their credit, Benson and Moorhead work better this way—in retrospect, the more ambitious Synchronic was thwarted by the vague rules it set itself, which always happens the minute anyone mentions time travel.

You might say that endless curiosity itself is the real subject of Something in the Dirt, and to that end, the directors have cited The X-Files as an influence, a show that tied itself up in knots once it tried to explain the unexplainable. Benson and Moorhead ended up in that situation with Synchronic, but here their anarchic energy is allowed to run free, and their enjoyment is infectious.

Though it loses a little momentum in the final stretch, things rally for the film’s denouement, which, in typical fashion, explains even less about what’s happening and opens up a new wormhole: is Levi playing John in some intra-dimensional mind game? Again, the directors refute the influence of—or infection by—the QAnon phenomenon. But leaving aside its politics and focusing just on structure, there is a definite correlation between their film and that conspiracy.

Like QAnon, Something in the Dirt is a puzzle that’s unusual in that it doesn’t want you to solve it, just to engage and take a ride. Those disappointed by the recent return to The Matrix might find what they’re looking for here: a film that gives questions to the answers you’ve always been looking for.

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