In its best moments, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead’s corny, enjoyable Something in the Dirt is as noisy, spooky, and sense-tingling as a piece of haunted house gothic. Only it’s not set in a haunted house. It’s set in a pair of modest apartments in Laurel Canyon. Helicopters and planes fly low over this place. A forest fire rages in the background. The movie was shot and largely conceived during the pandemic (they began to work on it only a few months into the first lockdown) and bears no small trace of that lonely period: It could just as well be called Cabin Fever.
That, rather than any of the numerous theories that come up in the movie, may be the best answer to whatever the hell is going on here. Some people diminish, rather than flourish, with too much time on their hands. Levi and John — played, respectively, by Benson and Moorhead — are in way, way too deep. Levi, sporting the midlength hair and attitude of an overaged burnout, has just moved into an apartment that’s apparently been vacant for 10 years. John, who’s recently divorced, is his only neighbor. They meet because Levi needs a cigarette. But things have already gotten weird by the time this happens. Levi wakes up in his new apartment which is already riddled with spooky mishaps. There’s water dripping from the ceiling, a closet with that door that won’t close whose walls are covered in math equations. He finds a sizable piece of quartz that he mistakes for an ashtray — that tells you how big this rock is. It’s not long before the men see the crystal floating, flooding the apartment with an eerie light.
What follows is a movie that feels quite a bit like falling down a rabbit hole online. These men have too many tabs open in their brains. Worse, they feed off of each other. Or is it the case that one of them is doing the feeding, and the other has unknowingly become the meal? Something in the Dirt traverses a wide range of conspiracies and cultish beliefs — from doomsday cults to time travel to Harry Houdini magic acts to the freemasons — taking a lightly meta posture toward all of it, as if it’s comfortable enough in its genre trappings that it knows that you know where it’s all going. It is not so surprising to learn that at least part of what we’re watching is a talking-head documentary about whatever we’re watching here. Even less surprising is when the men themselves begin to talk about making a documentary, which may or may not be the one we’re watching.
Benson and Moorhead are having fun stringing us along on a journey that’s oddly compelling, just mysterious enough to be intriguing but obvious enough to be more comical — knowingly so — than thrilling. It’s a low-stakes, very DIY affair of the kind that Benson and Moorhead, frequent collaborators, have carved into a veritable lane for their work. (Both men co-produced, co-directed, co-edited, and co-starred in the movie; Benson is credited as the writer, and Moorhead is credited as the DP.) As co-stars, the pair flex the usual muscles. They’re good at playing guys who don’t genuinely seem to be at risk of becoming friends — there’s usually a little too much friction for that — and who think out loud a little too much for their own good. Both characters have secrets. Neither is too likable. If not for the silly contraption of unknown phenomena that they both dive into headfirst, neither would really carry an entire story.
But this is the low-stakes pleasure of Benson and Moorhead’s movies. Ultimately, Something in the Dirt doesn’t quite convince as a genuine mystery — and it doesn’t seem to be meant to. Having fun with the artifice of it all — the loose “documentary” format, the well-played and visibly signaled “clues” scattered throughout — seems far more to the point. Self-awareness is a given. And the conditions behind the making of the movie, which is the work of a 12-person crew filming in one of the director’s pandemic apartments, are also to the point. It’s enjoyably pointless — like a movie that hears you asking why this story even exists and has preemptively replied, Why not?
More from Rolling Stone
Best of Rolling Stone