“I know it sounds nuts, but I’m just riffing here,” states one of the characters in Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson’s UFO of a film, “Something in the Dirt.” Benson and Moorhead had made four low-budget but increasingly slick horror movies, and after finishing “Something in the Dirt,” they’d go on to direct episodes of the Marvel series “Moon Knight.”
Stuck at home during the pandemic in 2020, they shot a film in their own homes, with producer David Lawson as the only other crew member. While not an allegory about COVID, it captures something equally dangerous which occurred in 2020: a conspiratorial madness that can take over when you have all day to muse on your strangest ideas and someone to push them along.
In an LA backyard, John (Aaron Moorhead) and Levi (Justin Benson) meet when John bums a cigarette from Levi. John has just broken up with his husband and plans to move out of the city. After a brief conversation, they hit it off, but when they continue talking in Levi’s apartment, a crystal suddenly takes flight and floats around. This phenomenon, accompanied by other bits of high strangeness, keeps occurring. They decide to make a documentary about it. We’re watching some version of that film, padded out with interviews with their editors and re-enactments made by the duo. The editing and choice of camera angles constantly vary, depending which character is behind the camera.
Levi, who is asexual, and John accept each other into their lives almost automatically. Their friendship feels slightly off yet it grows organically. The fact that the two actors not only know each other in real life but have been working together for more than a decade leads an undercurrent of believability to their rapport. (The film ends with the onscreen text “to making movies with your friends.”) Both are lonely men, struggling to remain middle-class. Their lives have turned out to be far more banal than they’d hoped for. Benson and Moorhead dole out small bits of information — about Levi, in particular — at regular intervals.
On one viewing, the layers of “Something in the Dirt” are impenetrable. The symbolism and rhyming imagery runs thick.
It’s a film that guys like Levi and John would love, and within a day of its release, there’s bound to be a subreddit devoted to fan theories about it. John frequently presses Levi further into the narrative they’ve created for the sake of making a more interesting documentary. At one peak, when Levi asks him to turn his phone’s camera off, he claims to do so but really just flips it upside down and keeps recording.
The two men talk about the popular theory that we’re living inside a simulation. Of course, they actually are, being characters in a fictional film that sometimes presents itself as scenes from a movie they’ve staged themselves. For all the “X-Files” trappings and allusions Art Bell’s UFO talk radio show, it comes close to the baroque labyrinths of experimental narrative directors like Alain Resnais and Raoul Ruiz. The ideas aren’t new, but the film’s liberation from commercial constraints and refusal to settle firmly into the groove of one genre, while still working within pop culture, are exciting.
Benson and Moorhead first started playing out with these ideas in their first feature, “Resolution,” where the monster turns out to be a projection of the filmmakers and audience controlling their characters’ fate. Their work suggests it all takes place in a shared universe. When John first brings up the evangelical church he belongs to, whose apocalyptic beliefs scare off outsiders, he’s probably talking about the UFO cult depicted in “Resolution” and “Endless.”
“Something in the Dirt” also belongs to a line of conspiratorial narratives about Los Angeles. Many of these are cinematic, but others exist in real life. The film revels in blurring the line, alluding to Jack Parsons, long-running theories about a pentagram embedded in the street layout of Washington, DC. and QAnon concepts like celebrities performing blood sacrifices to retain fame and power. Up to a certain point, Levi and John indulge in fairly harmless dorm room speculation about the nature of the universe. But they feel this stuff on a very personal level; after all, they talk about it as two crystals levitate in Levi’s apartment and the room shimmers with color. The film finds great humor in their banter, but the underlying pathos is obvious. Although tobacco and alcohol are the only substances they consume, they seem perpetually stoned, if not tripping. Their ability to grasp that a strange-looking cactus pear might be a natural occurrence rather than interdimensional communication and, even on Sunset Boulevard, a coyote could happen to wander by with no larger meaning breaks down.
As out there as it gets, “Something in the Dirt” exudes an ordinary sadness. Without that, it’d just be high concept with no substance. Occasionally, the film gets too on-the-nose with it, as in the line “find the pattern, you’re at the center of it.” It’s not just an unusual sci-fi film, but a touching drama about two men’s despair about their lives’ lack of larger meaning. They want to believe, at the cost of their connection to reality and each other.