For its first hour, “The Death of Dick Long” is a derivative and clunky black comedy that cribs from “Fargo” and trafficks in crass white-trash stereotypes, but that’s only part of a larger agenda. With the arrival of a kinky twist, the movie undercuts its lowbrow humor with real emotional stakes. The story of two close friends contending with the secret of their mutual buddy’s accidental death seems fairly straightforward — until it subverts expectations with gratifying results indicative of shrewd storytelling at work.
That’s no surprise given that “Dick Long” is the first solo directing credit for Daniel Scheinert, following his co-directing on “Swiss Army Man” (aka the “farting corpse movie”) that managed to turn its toilet gags into a surreal tone poem. “Dick Long,” which stems from Billy Chew’s script, lacks the same abstract weirdness that made “Swiss Army Man” such an indelible cinematic delight. It has more intimate aims — humanizing a couple of brutish morons by mining substance from the silliness, and arriving at the conclusion that crass white-trash stereotypes have feelings, too.
While both “Swiss Army Man” and “Dick Long” involve unusual dead bodies, the plot comparisons end there. Scheinert’s latest is a grimy ode to backwater Alabama, unfolding 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 Abbott 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. So begins a ritual of shotgunning beers and setting off fireworks late into the night, 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, it jumps to the main conundrum: Zeke and Earl speed to the hospital, where they dump an unconscious Dick on the street before darting off. The rest of the movie unfolds across a single, panicky day, as the men contemplate whether they should leave town or cover their tracks. Unlike many of the calculated protagonists that populate these types of crime-gone-wrong scenarios, Zeke and Earl aren’t sharp enough to figure out their next moves, and spend much of the day bumming around making things worse with a series of complications and miscalculations. If the blood-soaked car that refuses to sink into a lake weren’t bad enough, there’s Dick’s inquisitive wife (Jess Weixler), who demands to know if her missing husband has been having an affair, and Zeke’s curious daughter, who 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, for reasons he later can’t explain to a baffled Earl, and yet the hilarious encounter 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 mysterious corpse that arrived at the hospital the previous night. Dudley’s a fascinating twist on “Fargo” heroine Marge Gunderson, another plainspoken woman with a cozy family life whose wide-eyed naiveté belies her commitment to get the job done. Setting aside that “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 on their own terms. As they gather clues about Zeke and Earl around town, their banter suggests they could anchor an entire miniseries of eccentric small-town investigations.
But “Dick Long” really belongs to Zeke and Earl, whose strong ties are tested by the sudden crisis on their hands. In one of the comedian’s most substantial roles to date, Hyland portrays Earl as an overconfident hick unsure if he should support his nervous friend or flee town with his neighbor and potential love interest (Sunita Mani).
But Zeke’s conundrums form the bulk of the movie’s developing suspense, as he attempts to stave off questions from his inquisitive wife (Virginia Newcomb) and melts under pressure from police questioning more than once. 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 in 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 them to think deeper about the masculine archetypes at the center of the story.
Shot with a lot of handheld camerawork and only a few basic sets, “Dick Long” has a scrappy aesthetic that matches the loose, half-baked quality of its earlier scenes. Yet once it begins to mine genuine pathos from its absurd situation, it develops a poignant core. (This brand of canny deadpan style is an acquired taste, more Zellner brothers than Coens.) For the most part, nobody can muster the words to describe the unusual desires at the center of the movie’s big surprise, although one of the officers gives it a shot before shrugging it off: “People sure are inscrutable on their insides.”
Scheinert rejects that sentiment. “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 the most profound concept, but Scheinert explores it within the parameters of a goofy punchline. The concluding off-key performance of Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me” is either ironic, sincere, or some semblance 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 all still kind of a lark.
“The Death of Dick Long” premiered in the NEXT section at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. A24 will release it later this year.