Something in the Dirt: Yep, by David Bax
In many ways, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead‘s engrossing Something in the Dirt is a quintessential Los Angeles movie. It’s not just the shots of helicopters and coyotes or the chatter about wildfires. It’s the fact that it’s about two people–Benson and Moorhead themselves star as neighbors Levi and John–who came out to this city as so many do, either chasing something or (more likely) simply expecting to find something.
Needless to say, neither thing happened for these two men. But they stayed anyway. This describes a significant portion of Los Angeles’ population. That’s not meant to be a judgment; arguably, I’m among that number. Luckily, some of us find a purpose other than the one we were expecting. For others, they simply continue to float (or is it more of a free fall?) in the way the seasonless weather here tends to encourage.
Then, one day, something supernatural happens in Levi’s apartment. And it keeps happening in a predictable, repeatable way. Now Levi and John have their purpose. Which is, of course, to try to make money off this thing. They decide an independent documentary, later to be sold to the highest bidder, is the right path. So they break out the video and audio recording equipment. Here, Something in the Dirt quickly comes to resemble Jordan Peele‘s Nope from earlier this year, except if Steven Yeun were the main character. It’s even more explicit in its equating the capturing of images and sounds to control and exploitation.
Benson and Moorhead (as directors now) allow those very images and sounds to speak for themselves, in a sense. As Levi and John get closer to some possible tear in reality, the film itself also seems to come a tad unmoored (if there’s a pun in there, I didn’t intend it). The picture and the soundtrack seem to skitter, threatening to break irreparably.
Still, the real cracks come in the relationship between the two leads. The entertainment industry euphemism for what starts to happen would be “creative differences.” But what we’re seeing is that the years of failure have built up specific idiosyncrasies in each of these two men and their embarking on this project together is leading to those insecurities going to war against each other.
Whether it’s a float or a free fall, what is often required to maintain such an existence is an ongoing denial and/or a sturdy resistance to self-reflection. We see it in the way Levi and John keep justifying their own questionable choices, like staging and recreating events for the camera, even as the project falls apart. Something in the Dirt is a sometimes scary, sometimes funny horror/comedy that’s really about the ways we lie to ourselves and others to avoid responsibility for our bad decisions.