Sometimes it’s obvious when a film was made as a COVID-19 project. A lot of established filmmakers have released films about cabin fever or isolation recently — often scaled-back projects that leverage limited casts and locations to sometimes awkward effect. But while the new science fiction feature Something in the Dirt is one of those quarantine projects, it still feels a bit like coming home for Moon Knight and Synchronic directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. (Not least because its primary setting is Moorhead’s actual apartment.) This isn’t even the first cosmic-dread-centric head trip they’ve written and directed while also taking prominent roles in front of the camera: In 2018’s The Endless, they play brothers confronting a doomsday cult centered on time loops.
For their latest, the pair plays neighbors in a crummy Los Angeles apartment building. Levi Danube (Benson) is a new tenant, an aging bartender with a sketchy past and the long-haired look of a surfer bro. He soon meets John Daniels (Moorhead), a bespectacled churchgoer living on amateur photography gigs, a sideline working for an e-charging scooter company, and checks from his ex-husband. They’re kindred burnouts of a sort, initially bonded by the relative affordability of a building with planes constantly screaming overhead, then by something else entirely, once they witness supernatural anomalies in Levi’s apartment.
First, the stone they use for an ashtray begins to move on its own, refracting ethereal light and levitating. Other phenomena soon follow: mysterious heat sources, musical resonance, localized quakes, and objects seeming to appear out of thin air. These events, Levi and John think, are their ticket to bigger and better things. Mismatched styles and temperaments aside, they team up to film the happenings, hoping to sell the footage as a documentary to Netflix.
The result more or less follows the story beats of a found-footage movie, complete with faux behind-the-scenes setups and interview cutaways that foreshadow an ominous incident to come. The catch, though, is that little of the film involves the usual jittery handheld footage shot by panicking characters. As with Netflix’s Archive 81, a horror series for which Benson and Moorhead directed two of the eight episodes, the footage is more of a story device than a rigid style to follow. Levi and John are most often shown from the perspective of conventional cameras observing the action, in what are eventually revealed as staged reenactments Levi and John are creating for their eventual documentary.
The way the film doesn’t disclose those reenactments up front deliberately adds a layer of distrust on top of an already knotty meta-movie premise. But it also demonstrates the film’s sense of humor: Unlike the dogged camera-wielders in the horror movies and thrillers more typical of the found-footage format, these guys just don’t have the discipline or focus to keep filming all the time.
John and Levi spend much of the movie presenting theories colored by whatever podcast they just heard, or whatever trivia snippet they’ve retained from falling down a Wikipedia hole. They explore topics ranging from alien contact to concerning levels of radiation to a cult devoted to Pythagoras and his triangle theorem. Their ideas are all nice and digestible, creating a pleasant hangout vibe.
After a point, though, it’s apparent that few of these events are meant to add up. (Maybe none of them are.) Whether the floating objects and dancing lights are random, imagined, or outright staged, what matters is that any meaning derives from the characters themselves. They find patterns that rope in their own personal histories, because that’s ultimately what believing in a conspiracy theory or the paranormal is about: seeing what you want to see in order to create meaning for yourself.
The obvious touchstone for Something in the Dirt is the proliferation of real-life conspiracy theories and the current rise of fascism in America. When people want to believe in something, they will find ways to believe in it. The lack of evidence becomes evidence itself, a sign either of a cover-up or that there’s so little to see that only the most observant, knowledgeable few could even notice. We choose our realities, and people tend to choose the one that suits them, that flatters them as the chosen few who pay attention amid the sea of unthinking sheeple.
The way Benson and Moorhead examine found-footage movies is significant here, since the format’s apparent amateurism is so key to its veneer of authenticity. The artifice is obvious in a conventional film, suggesting manipulation and the ability to fool the audience. Crappy lighting and an unsteady camera, though, suggest a messy, unfiltered reality where little effort has gone into smoothing out the edges in an attempt to control what we see. It’s how The Blair Witch Project can be scary, even though it’s constructed around some vaguely person-shaped arrangements of sticks and a man standing in a corner. When we buy into the reality of what we’re seeing on screen, our minds will do the rest.
Something in the Dirt could justifiably be called an outright parody, demonstrating a prankish undercurrent even beyond the meta flourishes where Levi and John brainstorm titles for their documentary, like “Something in the Light.” The film’s plot and construction invites viewers to question its format and the things it shows through reenactments, and in the process, it demonstrates just how easily and indiscriminately we project meaning to fit the narrative we want. The film is full of cutaways to images that illustrate the full, preposterous range of Levi and John’s talking points, demonstrating how persuasive an argument can become within a framework built to support it. Plausibility can be engineered, and it’s not even hard to do.
The problem with Something in the Dirt, though, is that deconstructing the idea of documentary veracity just isn’t as revelatory in a format we already know is fake. Watching any film — even a found-footage one that’s trying to seem realistic — involves being aware of the artifice, and investing in or rejecting the emotions anyway.
The overall effect of Something in the Dirt is a little akin to watching a version of The Usual Suspects that reveals the big twist about reality and storytelling halfway through the movie. Levi and John go on theorizing long after the film establishes that plausibility is irrelevant, that they can come up with just about any theory about what they’re experiencing and still spin a story that will force the pieces to fit. With a run time of nearly two hours, Something in the Dirt goes a long way to make the obvious point that people can find any pattern they want if they look hard enough.
The film is genuinely clever at times in the way it explores the construction of illusions. But the process is deflating, because it also pushes the audience away, cutting them out of any investment or belief in the narrative. Compared to the movies that do the same thing with a straight face — the misdirection of Lake Mungo, the multimedia detective work of Noroi: The Curse, the online alienation expressed by We’re All Going to the World’s Fair — Something In the Dirt accomplishes less, and is less fun.
Something in the Dirt opens in theaters on Nov. 4, and will be available on VOD on Nov. 20.