‘Something In the Dirt’ Sundance 2022 Review – A Frustrating Trip Down a Rabbit Hole of Conspiracies

Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson appear in Something in the Dirt by Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Aaron Moorhead.

If you’ve ever gone down a rabbit hole of exploring one conspiracy theory after another, then the experience of watching Something in the Dirt will feel quite familiar. Directed by and starring Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, Something in the Dirt is a trippy, enthralling, and frustrating dive into isolation-driven conspiracy theories. The film’s sure to delight lovers of ambiguity. But for me, there was just a little too much constantly going on that never came together. And the whole experience felt more middling than enlightening. Those who like this kind of thing, though, will be head-over-heels for it.

An Endless Rabbit Hole

After new neighbors Levi (Benson) and John (Moorhead) accidentally uncover something potentially supernatural in Levi’s apartment, the pair decide to make a documentary exploring the phenomena. Their quest for answers takes them through various increasingly-bizarre conspiracy theories – as well as into the recesses of each other’s pasts. What results is a never-ending rabbit hole of one conspiracy theory after another. It’s a film that’s more about the journey than the resolution, to be sure. But that doesn’t really make the experience any less frustrating. I understand that the idea of ambiguity is at the heart of Something in the Dirt. The notion that there aren’t always answers to every question, and that just because you keep digging for an answer doesn’t mean you’ll ever find one. But as the basis of a narrative, it’s one that’s destined for disappointment.

For much of its runtime, Something in the Dirt feels like it’s endlessly chasing its tail. And while that feeling is likely what Moorhead and Benson intended, it doesn’t result in a particularly enjoyable experience. Instead, the whole film feels rather aimless. The more elements Moorhead and Benson layer on top of each other (like a confusing framing device), the less sense any of it makes. It’s just an endless barrage of stuff constantly happening, never going anywhere. And while Levi and John constantly try to create meaning out of this swirling mass of phenomena, none of that goes anywhere either. And, again, that’s absolutely the goal here. It’s clearly what Moorhead and Benson are aiming for, and they succeed wildly. But for me, it made for a deeply frustrating watch. The movie lost me pretty early on. And it never managed to win me back.

A Compelling Picture of Isolation-Driven Paranoia

Now, that being said, Moorhead and Benson do wind up creating a pretty accurate, and compelling, examination of isolation-driven paranoia. Clearly conceived (and filmed) during the ongoing pandemic, it’s easy to see how reflective of the times Something in the Dirt is. When you’re constantly isolated and faced with all of these endless existential questions, it’s easy to find yourself drifting down a loop of endless rabbit holes. I mean, just look at social media. And Something in the Dirt captures this idea perfectly. Levi and John are poor, aimless strangers in search of something to believe in. Some kind of meaning to their existence. So, when this seemingly paranormal event offers them the chance to find some meaning, of course, they’re gonna jump at it. And they’re gonna follow that journey wherever it leads, no matter how unlikely or convoluted it might be.

And that’s a super compelling idea. I just wish it had led to some kind of interesting destination. For a while, it seems like the movie just do that, with Levi frequently calling John’s extremist leanings to task. But then things abruptly end. No time for resolution, no sense of conclusion. No answers given, no real theses presented. And while that certainly supports the film’s commitment to ambiguity, I would’ve liked to have seen a stronger statement on this kind of isolation-driven paranoia. But it doesn’t seem like anyone’s learned anything from the film’s events. In fact, it’s difficult to see what effect any of these events have had on the characters. And that feels like a missed opportunity to me.

Great Performances, Visuals, and Sound Design

On the bright side, Something in the Dirt does deliver some compelling characters and even more compelling visuals. As Levi and John, Benson and Moorhead give quite captivating performances. I appreciate the nuances in both characters. The darkness, regrets, and secrets they try to hide from each other. The various neuroses that draw them deeper into this supernatural mind trip. It’s captivating stuff, and the movie explores it fairly well – even if there are times where the characterization feels a bit uneven and unrealistic. I wish the film had dived a little further into John’s psyche a bit. Though, I suppose the framing device explains this away to some degree. Regardless, Benson and Moorhead are committed to their roles and bring a lot of life and levity to their characters.

Even more impressive are the film’s visual effects and sound design. Something in the Dirt exemplifies the DIY nature of indie filmmaking, to be sure. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a good-looking film. In fact, a lot of the supernatural elements look absolutely brilliant and, more importantly, immensely believable. From the floating objects to the eerie light reflections, all of the visuals are deceptively simple, which only adds to their plausibility. And the same is true for the sound design. Often comprised of scratching noises, creepy radio transmission, and haunting music, it all comes together in such a deliciously creepy way. Despite its frustrating script, Something in the Dirt is a feast for the senses.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, Something in the Dirt is a weird, frustrating watch. Many of its ideas are intriguing, but there are far too many of them for the movie to properly explore. And for how accurate its representation of isolation is, it’s a shame that idea doesn’t quite build to its fullest conclusion. I liked parts of the movie. The visuals and sound design are superb. The performances are great. And the obvious love for filmmaking that permeates the movie is quite infectious. It’s just that Something in the Dirt never quite came together for me. If you’re a fan of these kinds of trippy, ambiguous films, then you’ll probably have a good time here. But if you’re not, then maybe give this one a pass.

Something in the Dirt had its World Premiere in the NEXT section of Sundance Film Festival 2022.

Directors: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead

Writer: Justin Benson

Rated: NR

Runtime: 116m

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

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