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something in the dirt

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[Sundance ’22] ‘Something in the Dirt’ review: Compelling as Hell, antagonizing AF

A cinematic Gordian Knot.

Something In The Dirt opens with Levi waking up in a shitty apartment with barely anything in it except some disconcerting mold and a few curious odds and ends left by the previous tenant. Ill-prepared, he notices a stranger in the courtyard smoking and goes out to bum a cigarette. Lucky for him, John obliges by tipping his open carton to his new neighbor. They chit-chat, peppering in details that are intriguing but too intimate for follow-up questions. John has leftover items from his ex that he is going to let Levi borrow, which they move into Levi’s apartment. As John is about to leave, Levi offers him a cigarette for the road. The carton looks familiar, and you question yourself. 

Then something really impossible happens. Like, literally impossible. John and Levi are bonded at that moment by the extraordinary, and both sense that something is meant to come of it. Something In The Dirt is a Sundance Film Festival screening about two dudes in Los Angeles trying to profit off magic. It is a modern take on the California Gold Rush – they have happened upon a thick vein of mystery of which they feel they have equal claim. Maybe they should have been strangers, but now they are partners trying to excavate what they found before greed and distrust ruin their chances of finally striking it rich.  

Not unlike their foolhardy predecessors, John and Levi find the landscape is choked with fellow prospectors. Theologians, fringe science enthusiasts, and even those reptilian weirdos have all staked their claim in the unknown. For their mystery to be valuable, it has to be rare, right? It has to mean something.  

What Moorhead and Benson have created with Something in the Dirt is a cinematic Gordian Knot. They have left no loose ends exposed. Every thread of logic weaves back on itself and dips under other layers of half-baked theories, misdirections, and lies. You are trapped with John (Moorhead) and Levi (Benson) in the corner of a dank apartment, slowly being suffocated by possibilities. They seem to be collaborating, but it becomes creepily evident that nothing said is actually penetrating – it is all brainstorm with no break. As the narrative becomes more intricately obtuse, you find yourself leaning in, dissecting their demeanors, looking for their performances to betray something, but they are implacable. It is disorienting and unsettling to go from Levi and John antagonizing each other to them antagonizing you.   

That antagonism provokes an involuntary and defensive alertness. Everything becomes weighty with conundrum – a passing comment, a snippet of found footage, the creek of a door. Your pattern-seeking brain keeps teasing and tugging, but all tightens around more significant uncertainty. You become so compressed that when you finally break free of the apartment, somehow it is still confining you. Even the open spaces are tight and uneasy. There is something conspiratorial about Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson being the cinematographer, the writer, the directors, and the stars of Something In The Dirt. It is as if they want to keep the satisfaction of knowing all to themselves. 

The film includes a simple dedication to “making movies with your friends.” Something in the Dirt is a return to form for the partnership of Benson and Moorhead. For this feature, they gather a familiar cadre of co-conspirators, including the producer, Dave Lawson, Jr., editor Michael Felker, and sound designer Yahel Dooley whom they have worked with before. They are critical to the unsettling alchemy of this film. The cast is also dotted with other notable filmmakers, including Issa López (Tigers Are Not Afraid), Sarah Adina Smith (Buster’s Mal Heart), and Gille Klabin (The Wave). The dedication, though antithetical to the theme, is oddly comforting. These filmmakers do still believe in and engage in trust.  

Since their last feature film, Synchronic (2019), their partnership has been gathering momentum, and it is tantalizing to superimpose autobiographical subtext onto Something in the Dirt. It is, after all, a movie about two individuals who are in Los Angeles to find personal success, only to discover that their fates are inextricably linked by a magic that is ineffable and maybe not real. Of course, Moorhead and Benson are not Levi and John, but I am not entirely unconvinced that they are not at the center of this tangled plot cackling. But then again, who can be certain?

The frontier of awe and wonder is now being divvied up and accumulating passive income for the unqualified masses. Each of Moorhead and Benson’s films is fixated squarely on how unsafe the unknown feels. But this film, in particular, is commenting on that untethered lack of security in a cultural moment where we are all feeling it simultaneously. Something In The Dirt perfectly recreates the paranoia we are all complicit in as we frantically pass around an unprecedented volume of unsubstantiated data. 

The Sundance Film Festival is online January 20- January 30. Tickets can be purchased and a full lineup can be found here.

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