There is instability in Something in the Dirt. Smoke billows from the Los Angeles desertscape, the foundation of which quakes intermittently. The central relationship, between John and Levi (Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, both of whom also directed), grows volatile, as personal histories and present intentions tense and flex. When the two set out to make a documentary about the strange phenomena manifesting in Levi’s apartment, the ontology of the image becomes tricky. Moorhead and Benson, working at their familiar crossroad between science-fiction and horror, deliver an exceptionally crafted, genuinely independent film.
As it opens, Levi is newly arrived in his apartment. John shares a cigarette with him and Levi presents a curious crystal for use as an ashtray. Later, while John is in Levi’s apartment, the crystal will float and emit an unearthly glow. This diffraction through no sane medium is repeatable when a specific set of conditions are met, but the events become stranger, less predictable as the two delve deeper into the possible source.
Throughout these early sequences, home video footage intrudes on the action. These typically illustrate the aspect of Levi’s childhood being narrated. The initial sense is of non-diegetic interjection. A tonal shift occurs when the first talking head appears. This introduces a touch of menace and a significant amount of humour. Moorhead’s delivery of a line regarding interdimensional fruit is surpassed only by his appearance in a homemade radiation suit. The comedy works for the same reason as the horror; the filmmakers demonstrate impeccable timing. Something in the Dirt is carefully measured; tension is built slowly, deliberately. As with many genre films, the threat of a whimpering finale looms. Moorhead and Benson, however, dangle threads to be uncoiled well after the credits roll.
These threads emanate from a self-sustaining bundle. As the unexplained proliferates, the duo resort to the most readily available resource. TED Talks, podcasts, and Reddit all get nods. In searching for answers, they substantiate their own theories as to what is happening in the apartment. This, combined with what we learn about the film they are making, introduces unreliability into the narrative.
Tensions grow as the characters fray around the edges. John associates himself with a Christian death cult and insists throughout that Levi is a loser. It is this perspective which comes to dominate the action. The spectator loses the centre, that privileged position from which the passive view films. Part of what sustains Something in the Dirt is a questioning, a refusal to take as given, that privileged position. In watching the film, the spectator is viewing the construction (if not the fruition) of a film within the film. The privileged position is always already a manipulation.
The threads bundled as they are, the film can only end in one way. That this is the case is made clear early enough, bearing in mind the foreshadowing allowed in the presentation of a complete object. What the viewer witnesses is the organisation of an event already lived. The mise-en-scene is simultaneously a doing and an acting, an action and a re-enactment. This instability, with the unreliability it engenders, animates the narrative. The central mystery of the film is not what causes the strange phenomena, but the possibility of weaving and believing impossible stories. Material evidence for what cannot be believed tends to discredit the impossible. The salve, for the believer, is a web of internal justification. Something in the Dirt, even before the dedication to making films with your friends, corrals justification into a palliative project.