Doomed bromances fuel the mind-bending genre outings of filmmaking duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. Their body of work to date points to a predilection for the dynamics of fraternal male relationships under strenuous, supernatural circumstances — whether it’s a bond strengthened over years or a fresh spark of camaraderie.
In their 2012 feature debut, “Resolution,” a man attempts to cure his best friend’s addiction as a series of bizarre occurrences begin to torment them. Five years later in “The Endless,” Benson and Moorhead played brothers caught in the grasp of an alien-worshipping cult. And for 2019’s “Synchronic,” they cast Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan as close paramedic pals who come across a drug that permits time travel. Within their unsettling brainchildren, the emotional tribulations that the events put the friendships through are dramatically vital.
“Something in the Dirt” is the duo’s latest look into the paranormal, and it could be the most bizarrely intricate film they’ve made so far. As per usual in their well-oiled operation, the pair co-directed and co-starred here, from a screenplay by Benson, who wrote himself into the role of Levi, an aimless man-child with a seemingly shadowy criminal record and a washed-up surfer look.
Sporting a buzz cut and a beard, Moorhead embodies John, a calculating gay hipster who belongs to an apocalypse-obsessed Evangelical congregation. Both multi-hyphenate creators wear their physical makeovers to further distance themselves from their reality. Brought together fatefully when Levi moves into the same complex for what he believes is a temporary stay, the fast-buds become inextricably tied together when witnessing an iridescent light emanate from a floating quartz in Levi’s decrepit Los Angeles apartment.
After initially interpreting the hypnotic shine as an apparition from the beyond, the two see a providential opportunity to make a documentary. Yet purpose is what they are after, really. To reach that endgame, Levi and John are more willing to manipulate their footage and film enhanced reenactments of events that no one outside of their bubble of rising insanity can corroborate. Different as they are, they enable each other’s restless minds.
As their characters dig deeper mental holes, the filmmakers begin to introduce fictional below-the-line people and scientific experts who provide testimony on the turbulent production. Tacitly, this lets us know that the fiction we are watching is meant to be a documentary about the making of their documentary. These interventions don’t provide much in the way of insight nor do they solidify the film’s flimsy “film within the film” conceit. One can just as easily forget the larger framing device as the madness unfolds.
What’s best fleshed out here is the evolution in Moorhead and Benson’s onscreen collaborations, given the tonal shape-shifting trick that these challenging parts require of them as actors. Sure, they are directing themselves from the text that one of them wrote, but one could argue that’s exactly what complicates how they find new avenues to rethink and replenish their artistic connection. In “Something in the Dirt,” the banter feels charged with a special kind of dread: both are begging for something real to awaken them. Moreover, the underlying humor gleaned from absurdity elevates the degree of difficulty.
Moorhead’s John speaks from a self-centered stance and patronizes his fellow “researcher” and “storyteller,” while Levi peddles a go-with-the-flow innocence to hide the many inner fractures he’s survived to get to this point. Under the same precarious roof their contentious interactions light a fuse foreshadowing a detonation.
Their rambling about geometrical symbols haunts everywhere they go — or the number 1908 that coincidently guides them in circles around random clues. They’re threading the same waters of the irrational quests in “The Da Vinci Code” saga, Joel Schumacher’s “The Number 23,” or even David Robert Mitchell’s “Under the Silver Lake,” but with a much more erratic pattern of ideas intentionally designed not to be resolved.
Even if contained inside the same, barely furnished apartment for a large portion of the running time, the fanciful constructions of the narrative reflects the anxiousness Levi and John exude. The soundscape makes one hyper-aware of the electrical currents that surround us and the use of economical VFX, with varying degrees of success, materializes the phenomena, perhaps not as it happened, but as they believe they saw it.
Ambitious to a fault, “Something in the Dirt” is an editing achievement (credited to Moorhead, Benson, and Michael Felker) in the way it fluidly coalesces all the explanatory cutaways, visual references, childhood home videos to evoke the magnitude of the data that shapes their joint story in what they perceive is a multi-verse of sorts — it folds into itself the way Matryoshka dolls do.
Listing the myriad references and intensely deranged theories these directionless 30-somethings turned filmmakers discuss would take a scroll. The reason for the earth-shaking and gravity defying episodes they recurrently experience since the translucent rock beckoned them could be an ancient secret society of Pythagoras adulators, an energy field like the Bermuda triangle that affects planes when flying over the city, or both of them combined in a cauldron of paranoia-inducing hypotheses. At times, the film also behaves partially like a strange ode to the mysticism that a place inherits from its inhabitants.
But although Benson and Moorhead deliberately conceived the convoluted machinations to mirror the scattered psyche of the men they are portraying, halfway through, the accumulation of information feels overwhelming in its circuitous quality. Watching it produces a sense of exhaustion as one irremediably tries to follow the endless threads, until we realize they are clearly not meant to amount to anything neatly wrapped or logical, but instead play out as if we were peaking into the inner workings of obsession and how people justify them. In deifying the possibility of coincidence, thinking everything must have a reason, all of their wild antics and tireless scavenger hunts are validated.
With QAnon and conspiracy theories sweeping the nation, puzzling the rest of us about how people could fall into such alternative realities, there’s definitely use in thinking of them not just gullible and monstrous, but to consider the human desire to belong, to something greater. “Something in the Dirt” functions as a disturbing and acerbically comedic riddle of a movie where finding the answers is a secondary, mostly unfruitful goal. What we are after is understanding the personal voids that push some of us to look for them in the first place.
“Something in the Dirt” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.