A movie displaying a cringe-worthy depiction of Alabama backwater haplessness, The Death of Dick Long may be a made-up story, but inside this crisis management suspense-comedy is a weirdly down-to-earth tale about the ripple effects of out-of-nowhere recklessness. Its first hour might be funny, but its also derivative and clunky filled with crass white-trash stereotypes, but that’s also only part of the master plan. When the arrival of the unsettlingly kinky twist, the movie undercuts its lowbrow humor with potent emotional stakes. The story of two close friends contending with the secret of their mutual buddy’s accidental death is the first solo directing credit for Daniel Scheinert, following his co-directing work on Swiss Army Man, a film that managed to turn its toilet gags into a surreal tone poem. Except The Death of Dick Long, which stems from a screenplay by Billy Chew, lacks the same abstract strangeness that made Swiss Army Man such an indelible delight. It has more intimate aims — humanizing a pair of brutish morons by unearthing substances from the silliness, and showing that crass white-trash stereotypes have feelings, too.
A native Alabamian Scheinert’s grimy ode to backwater Alabama unfolds in a small town where nobody dreams big or considers the outside world. The wondrous opening sequence encapsulates that setting with terrific concision: Pals Zeke Olsen (Michael Abbot Jr.), Earl Wyeth (Andre Hyland) and the titular Dick Long (Scheinert himself) jam out with a crude rendition of Staind’s “It’s Been a While” in Zeke’s garage until his wife puts their young daughter to bed. But after that, a ritual of shotgunning beers and setting off fireworks late into the night begins, until the trio heads into a barn to continue their antics. “Y’all wanna get weird?” Dick asks, but the movie holds back on revealing just how weird things are about to get. Instead, we jump to the main conundrum: Zeke and Earl are speeding to the hospital, now looking to dump an unconscious Dick somewhere and they do, right infront of the hospital before darting off. The rest of the movie unfolds across a single, panic-filled day, as the men contemplate whether they should leave town or cover their tracks. The problem is that Zeke and Earl aren’t exactly the sharpest knifes in the drawer and spend much of the day bumming around making things worse with a series of complications and miscalculations.
Things only get worse for the two. If a blood-soaked car that won’t sink into a lake wasn’t bad enough, Dick’s inquisitive wife (Jess Weixler), is demandingly searching for her missing husband and Zeke’s curious daughter (Poppy Cunningham), attracts the attention of Officer Dudley (Sarah Baker) when Zeke stops at a gas station. The jittery Zeke somehow winds up handing over Dick’s wallet which somehow fails to arouse the officer’s suspicions. Back at the station, however, her superior Sheriff Spenser (Janelle Cochrane) allows Officer Dudley to take on the case of the mysterious corpse. Dudley is a plainspoken woman, in the vein of Fargo‘s Marge Gunderson, whose wide-eyed naiveté belies her commitment to get the job done. Setting aside that The Death of Dick Long is the rare cop movie where both cops are unconventional female characters, the officer and her sheriff make for a charming pair of dopey patrollers. But the movie really belongs to Zeke and Earl, whose strong ties are tested by their sudden crisis.
In particularly, Zeke’s plight forms the bulk of the film’s developing suspense, as he attempts to avoid questions from his wife (Virginia Newcomb) and melts under pressure from police questioning more than once. And after Earl threatens to split up, Zeke’s frantic attempts to cover his tracks initially come across as the reckless machinations of a dopey moron fated to end up in jail (his nervous breakdowns are amusing and tragic at equal measures). When Zeke finally explains the conditions of Dick’s death, it’s clear that his kookiness is a defense mechanism designed to obscure his biggest secret. The eventual revelation is a seemingly ludicrous twist that invites audiences to laugh even as it compels to think deeper about the masculine archetypes at the center of the story.
Shot with a lot of handheld camerawork, with strong work from cinematographer Ashley Connor and only a few basic sets, The Death of Dick Long has a scrappy aesthetic that matches the loose, half-baked quality of its earlier scenes. Yet once it begins to mine pathos from its absurd situation, it develops a core with some poignancy. The Death of Dick Long may seem like a vessel for sophomoric humor on par with its double-entendre title, but it ultimately celebrates the value of embracing difference, no matter the cost. It’s not exactly the most profound concept, but Scheinert explores it pretty well. The concluding off-key performance of Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me” is either ironic, sincere or, most likely, a bit of both. The same can be said of the movie’s silly-strange trajectory, as it pushes past a grating surface to find nuggets of meaning, without forgetting that it’s still kind of a lark. Filled with wacky, deadpan comedy, The Death of Dick Long subverts expectations through strongly balancing its astute storytelling and provocative elements.