Directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead devised a buddy sci-fi movie about two greenhorn researchers of one paranormal ashtray in Something in the Dirt (2022). In between the lines, the maverick duo of filmmakers scoffs at conspiracy theories, but not without a shred of sympathy.
Almost any significant historical event has been ruthlessly excavated by all kinds of truthers who pulverized and grinded every detail of the story in hopes of unraveling the grand lie. Think of the countless speculations surrounding the JFK shooting or the death of Adolf Hitler. If the name Andrew Callaghan rings a bell, the man who scouts America in his endless search for the best random tinfoil hatter/rapper, then you know how wild some of these conspiracies are.
Thankfully, the thing about conspiracy theorists is that they rarely find masses that would bless them with attention and understanding. But dig deep enough in the vast abyss of the Internet, and you’ll find yourself a myriad of forums – such as various subs on Reddit. Needless to say, finding like-minded people is pretty easy, after all.
A significant event also happens in the lives of John and Levi. The latter, a run-down bartender with a cloak of mystery, moves into a shaggy apartment in LA. And he happens to own a very special ashtray that – under rigid circumstances – levitates and glows with prism-like beams. Since both gentlemen mastered procrastination quite handsomely, it doesn’t take long for John and Levi to thrash themselves into a joyful exploration of the phenomenon. After some debate, they decide to pack the strange occurrences into a money-making documentary film (both seem to be sure of hitting at least ten million bucks).
Once the first boost of excitement wears off, it’s time to carefully plan… the actual content. Having little experience with filmmaking, John and Levi wade on, catching only glimpses of the many bizarre things in Levi’s apartment. Through trial and error, they attempt to unravel the mystery of the otherworldly rock, and as a by-product, they also form a peculiar love-hate friendship. In the fashion of Nope (2022), where the secluded ranch turned into an alien hunting ground, Benson and Moorhead serve an artillery of bizarre concepts, including a hilarious scene of “communicating” with the rock using Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. When the bonafide documentarians aren’t at work, they smoke, drink and plot theories that capture the essence of every conspiracy theory – their absurd.
The firmest pillar of Something in the Dirt (2022) is the undeniable chemistry of its stars – Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead blend in the roles of Levi and John, respectively. Witnessing the ackamarackus that both gentlemen provide in abundance is a hilarious, wink-wink look at the train of thoughts many conspiracy theorists exhibit. To share an example – at some point, John believes that the rock can be radioactive, so he makes a patchwork protective suit made of shopping bags and duct tape. As the far more “into-it” guy, John also hopes to decipher a sequence of Morse code that he notices in a cut-in-half cactus fruit that presumably grew as a radiation effect. Needless to say, it’s just random seeds.
Moorhead and Benson share chemistry and mold characters with motivations and layers. Benson’s Levi seems to be a rugged addict, but the more depth he reveals, the more intriguing the role becomes. On the other hand, Moorhead balances on the verge of dedication, obsession, and insanity, and there’s a fascinating insight into the psyche of someone assured to be standing on the verge of a scientific breakthrough. Moorhead’s portrayal of an unhinged ex-math teacher draws inspiration from Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou in Nightcrawler (2014), particularly in how he manipulates the s*** out of Levi.
The by-product of Moorhead’s disturbing performance is the thriller/sci-fi factor present in Something in the Dirt (2022). Some viewers may notice traces of cosmic horror in the fabric here, particularly when the mysterious force trapped in the crystal reveals its cognitive-like skills. Although the directing duo steers away from the likes of Color Out of Space (2019) or Cronenberg’s features, the spirit of something maleficent and threatening is omnipresent.
In larger parts, Something in the Dirt (2022) is entertaining a comedy, though. Benson’s script packs many good laughs, which for obvious reasons, revolve around conspiracy theories. Nevertheless, these jokes don’t become repetitive when said with the ecstatic energy of two dudes who do something they have no clue about.
On the less positive side, Something in the Dirt (2022) suffers from severe pacing troubles. Random ideas of the two brave documentarians determine the direction of the narrative. While that carries a factor of unexpectedness, it also causes the film to lack a conventional plot. Most film is shot inside the flat, thus producing a cage-like feeling to the experiment, and the camera only occasionally leaves Levi’s apartment. When it does, Moorhead and Benson render chops of the documentary – bits of interviews with confused experts, along with the leading duo discussing whether what happened was real. That isn’t enough to keep us guessing – particularly because right in the first scene, the fate of one of the characters is revealed to us.
Bearing witness to the duo’s earlier works, I gotta say that Something in the Dirt (2022) hits much closer to home than projects such as Archive 81 (2022), which was helmed by Moorhead and Benson and produced by Netflix. The filmmakers are in their element when they work with big ideas stuffed into small, independent films – so was the case with their exceptional sci-fi with occult themes, The Endless (2017). And while Something in the Dirt (2022) never reaches the poignance of that film, it’s still fun to watch.