Sometimes it’s obvious when a movie was made as part of a COVID-19 project. Many established filmmakers have recently released films about cabin fever or isolation — often scaled-down projects that exploit limited casts and locations to sometimes awkward effect. But while the new sci-fi feature something in the dirt is one of those quarantine projects, it always feels like coming home to moon knight and Synchronic directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. (Not least because its primary setting is Moorhead’s actual apartment.) It’s not even the first cosmic-terror-centric headlong trip they’ve written and directed while playing leading roles on camera. : in 2018 infinitythey play brothers facing a doomsday cult centered around time loops.
For their latest, the pair play neighbors in a seedy building in Los Angeles. Levi Danube (Benson) is a new tenant, an aging bartender with a sketchy past and the long-haired look of a surfer brother. He soon meets John Daniels (Moorhead), a bespectacled stalwart living off amateur photography gigs, a collaborator working for an electric charging scooter company, and checks from her ex-husband. It’s sort of related burnouts, first bound by the relative affordability of a building with planes constantly screeching overhead, and then something else, once they’ve been witnesses to 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 sources of heat, musical resonances, localized earthquakes and objects that seem to appear out of nowhere. These events, Levi and John believe, are their ticket to bigger and better things. Mismatched styles and temperaments aside, they team up to film the events, hoping to sell the footage as a documentary to Netflix.
The result more or less follows the rhythms of a found footage film story, with faux behind-the-scenes setups and interview cutaways that foreshadow an ominous incident to come. The catch, however, is that little of the movie involves the usual choppy handheld sequences shot by panicked characters. Like with Netflix Archives 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 re-enactments that Levi and John create for their eventual documentary.
The way the movie doesn’t divulge these re-enactments in advance deliberately adds a layer of distrust on top of an already gnarled meta-movie premise. But it also demonstrates the film’s sense of humor: unlike the dogged cameramen of horror movies and thrillers more typical of the found footage format, these guys just don’t have the discipline or focus to keep film all the time.
John and Levi spend much of the movie pitching theories colored by the podcast they just heard, or whatever trivia snippets they’ve withheld from falling down a Wikipedia hole. They explore topics ranging from alien contact to concerning radiation levels to a cult devoted to Pythagoras and his triangle theorem. Their ideas are all pleasant and digestible, creating a pleasant meeting place atmosphere.
After a while, however, it’s apparent that few of these events are meant to add up. (Perhaps none of them are.) Whether the floating objects and dancing lights are random, imagined, or downright staged, what matters is that all meaning derives from the characters themselves. same. They find patterns that fit into their own personal stories, because that’s ultimately what believing in a conspiracy theory or the paranormal means: 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 actual conspiracy theories and the current rise of fascism in America. When people want to believe in something, they will find ways to believe it. The lack of evidence becomes evidence itself, a sign either of a cover-up or of the fact that there is so little to see that only the most observant and knowledgeable might even notice. We choose our realities, and people tend to choose the one that suits them, that flatters them like the chosen few who pay attention in the middle of the sea of thoughtless sheep.
The way Benson and Moorhead examine found films is significant here, because the apparent amateurishness of the format is so essential to its veneer of authenticity. The artifice is evident in conventional film, suggesting manipulation and the ability to deceive the audience. Crappy lighting and an unstable camera, however, suggest a messy, unfiltered reality where little effort has been made to smooth the edges in an effort to control what we see. It shows The Blair Witch Project can be scary, even though it’s built around arrangements of sticks vaguely shaped like a person and a man standing in the corner. When we accept the reality of what we see on the screen, our mind will do the rest.
something in the dirt could rightly be called an outright parody, demonstrating a prankish undercurrent even beyond the blooming meta where Levi and John ponder their documentary’s titles, like “Something in the Light.” The film’s plot and construction invites viewers to question its format and the things it shows through re-enactments, and in the process it demonstrates how easily and indiscriminately we project meaning to adapt to the narrative we want. The film is replete with cutaways of footage that illustrate the full range of absurdist Levi and John talking points, demonstrating just how persuasive an argument can become in a setting designed to support it. Plausibility can be engineered, and it’s not even hard to do.
The problem with something in the dirt, however, is that deconstructing the idea of documentary veracity just isn’t as telling in a format we already know to be false. Watching any movie – even a found movie that tries to look realistic – involves being aware of the artifice and investing or rejecting the emotions anyway.
The overall effect of something in the dirt is a bit like looking at a version of The usual suspects which reveals the big twist on reality and storytelling halfway through the film. Levi and John continue to theorize long after the film has established that plausibility is irrelevant, that they can come up with just about any theory about what they’re going through, and go on to tell a story that will force parts to fit. With a battery life of nearly two hours, something in the dirt goes a long way in making it clear that people can find any pattern they want if they look hard enough.
The film is sometimes really clever in the way it explores the construction of illusions. But the process deflates, as it also alienates the audience, cutting them off from any investment or belief in the narrative. Compared to films that do the same thing with a straight face – the poor orientation of Lake Mungothe multimedia detective work of Noroi: The Curse 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 November 4 and will be available on VOD on November 20.
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