Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead: Something in the Dirt (2022) | featured image
Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson in Something in the Dirt (2022) | Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Aaron Moorhead.

Sundance 2022: Sci-Fi Horror ‘Something in the Dirt’ Is an Exhilarating Journey Into Madness

Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson’s sci-fi-horror Something in the Dirt exists at the intersection of mathematics, philosophy, mysticism, and nicotine.

Something in the Dirt
Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead
23 January 2022 (Sundance)

When a film’s characters says, “I might be one of the first people in the Universe to taste an interdimensional fruit,” you know you’re in for a wild ride. Something in the Dirt, the latest collaboration from directors Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, exists at the intersection of mathematics, philosophy, mysticism, and nicotine. It’s also a film-within-a-film. We’re dealing with a lot of stuff here. Maybe it doesn’t all quite fit together, but it’s an undeniably exhilarating journey into madness.

Levi (Justin Benson) just rented his new apartment in Laurel Canyon. He wonders why no one else has lived there in ten years. Maybe it has something to do with the strange pounding in his attic, or the bizarro geometry equations scrawled on his front door, or the giant crystal that occasionally levitates and casts a heavenly light on the wall. His downstairs neighbor John (Aaron Moorhead) is an amateur mathematician who thinks these phenomena demand an investigation. Yeah, this isn’t going to end well.

Something in the Dirt is a dizzying fever dream from two filmmakers who aren’t afraid to take stylistic and thematic risks. There’s an irrepressible momentum to the shot design and editing choices. For example, when a character references an event from their childhood, we see actual home movie footage from their childhood spliced into the film. Breakneck cuts create escalating paranoia. Stylistically, one is reminded of Darren Aronofsky’s work, particularly Pi (1998), which intertwines similar riffs on math and mysticism.

Like their earlier film, The Endless (2017), Moorhead and Benson ground their supernatural shenanigans in the real world. They refuse to skimp on character development. John and especially Levi have backstories extending far beyond the boundaries of this film. The dialogue, too, is naturalistic and believable, likely due to the director’s reliance on extended rehearsals. Most of the scientific and supernatural phenomena are partially tapping into actual concepts; the Pythagorean Brotherhood, irrational numbers, and Jerusalem Syndrome are all name-checked along the way.

Further adding to the surrealism of their ever-expanding investigation is the film-within-a-film conceit. John decides it’s a good idea to film a documentary about their research. Periodically we get behind-the-scenes interviews after the film’s events, reflecting on the chaos we have yet to see. This is not only a humorous take on paranormal documentaries (complete with cheesy re-enactments) but a clever foreshadowing device.

Eventually, the paranoia spirals out of control as the phenomena in Levi’s apartment intensifies. What started as some spooky lights devolves into a sprawling theory of everything. Every coincidence becomes a clue, and every clue becomes a new thread of investigation. It’s wonderfully twisted fun trying to keep up with the boys, which bodes well for repeated viewings.

RATING 7 / 10