(This article was originally published on Ginger Nuts of Horror in November 2022)
2012’s “Resolution” marked writer/directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead as talents to watch – it was a visually distinctive high concept low budget science fiction piece that appeared out of nowhere. Striking a similar chord to other smart and thought-provoking pieces of science fiction such as “Primer”, “Pi” and the hidden gem of Geoff Murphy’s 1985 slow-burner “The Quiet Earth” – it tells the tale of two friends in a remote cabin in the boondocks of San Diego. With one friend there to help the other to confront and beat his addiction, they soon both begin to experience unexplainable phenomena which are more than just the effects of going cold turkey. “Resolution” was a critical success, and paved the next for their next more ambitious work, “The Endless”.
Taking place in the same reality as “Resolution” and even including the characters from that film), “The Endless” expanded on that universe with a sprawling tale of UFO cults, unusual spectacles and survivors guilt. This was not only written and directed by Benson and Moorhead, but also featured them as the stars – marking them, rather annoyingly, as true talents who can genuinely turn their hands succesfully to anything.
2022 sees the release of “Something In The Dirt”, a more intimate film featuring Benson and Moorhead as the lead protagonists again, but set in Los Angeles. Despite the apparent smaller scale – due to restrictions enforced by the Pandemic – it’s a much larger piece in scope, encompassing some vast concepts in its nearly two-hour running time.
Frightfest 2022 hosted the UK premiere of the movie, and Ginger Nuts of Horror were lucky enough to get to chat to Moorhead, Benson and Producer Dave in an interview due to be put out there nearer to the UK Cinema release date in November.
Levi (Justin Benson) has just moved into his new apartment and a chance encounter in the communal courtyard sees him meet neighbour John (Aaron Moorhead). The two of them witness a prenatural occurrence in Levi’s apartment, and their subsequent investigations - and attempt to document the phonomena – drag them into a rabbit hole of confusing and contrary conspiracy theories. What at first begins as a yearning for fame and wealth, begins to overtake both of their every waking moments. Their obsessive efforts to explain the unexplainable lead them into conflict with their own sanity, each other – and will ultimately end in tragedy. These are both damaged personalities, in their own way, and the worst possible thing they could ever have done was encounter each other.
There’s a fine line to tread when introducing unreliable narrators into a character-driven piece, and “Something in the Dirt” has two such narrators. Levi, at first, comes across as the more conpisracy prone of the two – all new-age sensibilities with coloured hair and shorts and t-shirts, but it’s John who eventually emerges as the more obsessive and dedicated. The problem with unreliable narrators is that they run the risk of the audience questioning why they’re watching – if nothing can be guaranteed to be real, there’s a genuine danger of alienating the viewer.
However, I’m relieved to say that “Something in the Dirt” executes this narrative trick with aplomb. It performs the masterful trick of unravelling their narration, letting the audience in on the trick in an audacious move that even Moorhead and Benson revealed that they thought might have been a step too far – but turned out to be anything but, being the most pivotal and important trick of the movie.
With a running time of nearly two hours, you’d be forgiven for thinking that’s a lot of time to spend in the company of the two characters – but their journey is one that’s as entertaining as it is jaw-dropping in its relevations. Despite the small cast (and the fact that it’s an exploration of parts of a city as opposed to the sprawling desert vistas of “Resolution” or “The Endless”), it feels huge in scope – with Levi and John seemingly constantly on the verge of a great discovery, before it becomes derailed and replaced with whatever new piece of confirmation bias they’re working to.
There are a couple of neat narrative tricks at work here; seeding the audience with visual clues before the characters themselves find them, and some interesting character depth that’s carefully drip-fed in to the narrative.
I’ll be sure in that I wasn’t sure what to expect – I was confident that it’d be good, being a big fan of the guys’ previous work, but a review of it claiming that it was a stoner comedy filled me with a certain amount of trepidation. I needn’t have worried – there are jokes (and drug use) but it’s anything but that. It’s worthy of note that it’s quite a timely movie, and one that could only really exist now. Timely because it’s a genuinely terrifying period of time where there are many, many people like Levi and John out there – flat-earthers, climate crisis deniers and hordes of internet users who believe in a cabal of satanic paedophilic cannibals lurking at the highest echelons of power. “Something in the Dirt” shows the cost of belief, and the cognitive dissonance involved in reinforcing those beliefs, even to detriment of reality itself.
“Something in the Dirt” is perhaps Moorhead and Bensons best work yet – an intringuing sci-fi premise that firmly places it in their cinematic universe, but smart enough to take those concepts further than ever before. Despite the apparent small scale, it’s a movie of big concepts, and – despite the fact that certain story hooks don’t progress as far as you’d like – it’s one of the most interesting movies I’ve seen this year. Highly recommended.
“What’s crazier – believing every single coincidence you see, or just ignoring them all?” - John