Sundance 2022 Film Review – Something In The Dirt (2021)

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Fresh on the heels of directing episodes of the hit Netflix series Archive 81 creative forces of nature Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead make their Sundance debut with their 5th movie Something In The Dirt. A head-spinning shoestring Sci-Fi spectacular shot during the pandemic.

Fans of the likable pair worried they may run out of ideas can rest easy. Their latest salvo of the strange is a frantic collage of colourful conspiracy theories and bonkers brainstorming that will fry the living fuck out of your occipital lobe.

The premise is deceptively simple. Heavy drinking Levi moves into a crummy flight path apartment in L.A. and befriends his apocalypse church-going neighbour John. They witness a bizarre super phenomenon in Levi’s apartment involving a floating crystal they have repurposed as an ashtray and a nether worldly light show that projects complex mathematical calculations.

Levi and John, played by Benson and Moorhead respectively, chain smoke relentlessly and bounce a plethora of half-cocked theories off each other in the name of documenting the weirdness and making millions from Netflix.

As the intensity of the episodes escalates and the gravitational fluxes become more dramatic their relationship begins to fracture in symbiosis with the world around them.

The filmmakers know all too well that two guys shooting the shit about every unexplained phenomenon under the sun might not make the most electric cinema, no matter how endearing the chemistry between them is. Consequently, Benson and Moorhead go all in by flooding the screen with a tsunami of mixed media, talking-head interviews, found footage flashbacks, and trippy visuals. The end result feels like being transported inside a David Ike PowerPoint presentation after a heavy night on the mescaline and mushrooms with the spooky rabbit from Donnie Darko.

With such a limited cast much of the film’s success hinges on the sustainability of the central interaction and thankfully there are enough surprise reveals and mini meltdowns to keep things fresh. In the honeymoon period of their bromance, they are congenial, forgiving, and fun to hang out with. Bonded by the shared desire to elevate themselves above their perceived anonymity. None more so than in the fabulous scene where they serenade the entity with a guitar and theremin combo.

However, as egos are wounded and agendas unveiled the viewer is dragged into the blossoming friction and that’s where the real tension of Something In The Dirt resides.

Levi is outed as a convicted street pisser forced onto the sex register for his misdemeanor. More worrying still is the past grief he runs from after contributing to the downfall of his own sister. John, on the other hand, lives secretly off handouts from his ex-husband and is complicit in his own sad nihilism.

When familiarity and technical fucks ups start to breed contempt between the pair they waste no time in flinging these character flaws at each other with the mysterious happenings having to interject to regain the centre of attention. Whether or not the fatal degradation of their early connection is down to the psychological influence of the manifestation or the pressures of joint creativity is open to interpretation. As indeed, is a great deal of the film itself.

The sound design is both bombastic and beautiful, flanked by an expectedly ethereal score from the wonderful The Album Leaf. And, although the budget is legitimately meager the directorial due have enough resources and collective clout to indulge in some pleasingly potent optical flourishes to enhance the cosmic horror and give the film a more expansive identity.

The effects, presumably done entirely in post-production, are deceptively high-end. Also, the vast swathes of cutaways, visual pointers, and animated diagrams employed for emphasis are often witty and always polished. Imagine the opening ski crash sequence from Molly’s Game merged with the unsuccessful suicide scene from Magnolia and dropped into an applied physics lecture. Extrapolate that out for nearly two hours and you are halfway to the money.

It’s astonishingly annoying that while many of us were developing drink habits and binging boxsets during lockdown these two gave life to this exhaustive, sometimes exhausting, inquisition into the unknown corners of the unexplained.

How viewers interact with this intimate, yet breathless flick will be entirely dependent on personal worldviews and openness of mind. Those with a predilection towards the siren-like pull of the conspiracy rabbit hole will nod sagely at recognised theories and embrace any new ones. Those with a more conventional eye and pragmatic belief system will see the film much more as a biting satire. 

Either way, attention spans will be severely tested and I suspect that was exactly the intention of this irrepressible rockslide of ideas.

★★★★

Sci-Fi Drama/Conspiracy Thriller Comedy | USA | 2022 |Not Yet Rated| 1h 56 mins |Sundance Film Festival  | Rustic Films | Dir(s). Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead | With: Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead

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