The oddball comedy Swiss Army Man, which featured Paul Dano as a man who befriends Daniel Radcliffe’s flatulent corpse, was one of 2016’s weirdest movies. Half of that film’s directing duo, Daniel Scheinert, returns this year with his solo debut, The Death of Dick Long. While it lacks the big star names of Swiss Army Man, it’s no less dark, strange, and funny.
The movie takes place in a small town in Alabama, where a terrible cover band is drunkenly jamming one night. The suggestion that they should “get weird” leaves one of the group–drummer Richard Long–badly hurt and dumped outside the local hospital by his bandmates Zeke (Michael Abbott Jr.) and Earl (Andre Hyland). When Dick dies from his injuries, Zeke and Earl try to cover up the crime while the police begin their investigation.
On the face of it, The Death of Dick Long is reminiscent of other darkly funny small-town thrillers, such as Simple Plan, Blood Simple, and most notably Fargo. But while these movies deal with the fallout from a familiar movie crime–kidnapping, theft, or murder–Scheinert and writer Billy Chew have other plans. They are careful not to reveal the cause of Dick’s death for an entire hour, and the build toward this moment is carefully handled, generating considerable tension.
As a result, the filmmakers are able to spend as much time on the characters and their town as on the thriller plot. At first Zeke and Earl come across as clichéd small town hicks, who spend their time drinking, jamming, and avoiding responsibility. Zeke has a wife and young child and is definitely more equipped for adult life than Earl, but even he hides some dark secrets from his family and barely thinks through the effects that his actions will have on them. Earl might have zero responsibilities, but at least his mistakes will only impact him.
Abbott Jr. and Hyland’s sympathetic performances help invest these characters with humanity even as we laugh at their idiotic attempts to avoid being caught. There are also funny turns from Janelle Cochrane as a veteran sheriff and Sarah Baker as her eager junior officer, while Virginia Newcomb and Jess Weixler, as Zeke and Dick’s long-suffering wives, are easily the most “normal” characters here.
Scheinert, who grew up in Alabama, has a great eye for capturing the details of the community. The largely unknown cast, thick southern accents, and quirky details–from the bare-chested man smoking on his exercise bike to a woman’s unconventional way of mowing her inaccessibly steep lawn–all help create an authentic setting. In a recent Q&A at the movie’s screening at Fantastic Fest, Scheinert explained that he was careful not to mock the residents of towns such as these, and that all the weird details were based on things he had really seen there.
When it finally arrives, the reveal of how and why Dick Long died is a great punchline. It’s truly unexpected, and takes the movie in a seriously dark but funny direction. It sheds new light on the two characters we have just spent an hour getting to know, and succeeds in setting the movie apart from other backwoods thrillers. Unfortunately, the movie’s great twist is also its one major flaw. It doesn’t have many places to go from there, and the rest of the film is spent watching the police slowly close in on Zeke and Earl, while they continue to wrestle with what they have done. The movie becomes fairly repetitive at this point and doesn’t really give us any further insight into the motivations of its main characters. And while there is humor to be derived from watching the cop duo deal with the situation, their inability to put together simple clues does at times stretch credibility.
Nevertheless, for the most part, The Death of Dick Long is a carefully crafted balance of low-key drama, crime thrills, and oddball humor. In less skilled hands, the outlandishness of the movie’s big reveal could have undone the good work beforehand, and it is to Scheinert and Chew’s credit that it never succumbs to cartoonish clichés. Even the soundtrack, which is packed with songs by bands such as Creed and Nickleback, works well. Instead of mocking the characters for loving such terminally uncool music, it shows it is a big part of their lives. Zeke and Earl might be irreparably damaged, but they feel like real people, and the time spent with them is ultimately a rewarding one.
Reviewed at Fantastic Fest 2019.
Source: Game Spot Mashup