When music video directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert dropped 2016's Swiss Army Man, starring Daniel Radcliffe as an animated corpse with magical farts, no one knew what to make of it. Yet, it miraculously earned positive reviews coming out of the Sundance Film Festival for its powerful, tender modern fairy tale about toxic masculinity and being afraid of who you are. Scheinert’s follow-up, The Death of Dick Long, is a far darker, more subdued story -- until it isn’t.
Never remotely as goofy as his previous effort but still bizarre in its own way, it’s sort of difficult to believe the film exists. But in a post-Mother and Sorry to Bother You world, perhaps anything can.
The cast,intentionally composed of relative unknowns and under-the-radar actors, perfectly draws the viewer in to its middle-of-nowhere Alabama setting. Michael Abbott Jr. and Andre Hyland take the lead as Zeke and Earl, two stereotypical Southerners. The two, along with their best friend Dick, fill their free time by performing covers of late-1990s grunge rock, getting wasted on cheap beer, smoking pot, shooting guns and setting off fireworks.
One night, off-screen, everything goes wrong, and Dick is accidentally killed. For the first hour or so, The Death of Dick Long acts as a well-executed, if same-y, crime drama. Almost a Coen Brothers homage, the first half is an enjoyable crime dramedy about a forgotten, close-minded town wracked by fear in the aftermath of Dick’s “murder,” and the two bumbling idiots who try to evade the law.
Predictably, Zeke and Earl make dumb, easily avoidable mistakes with every step they take to cover their tracks. It’s a really fun hour or so that sets up all the movie's pieces, and introduces all its eccentric characters, even though the “covering up a friend’s death while police try to solve the case” story has been done before.
In 2019, the decision by Scheinert and writer Billy Chew to set their story in the middle of Alabama is fraught with meaning. However, they wisely leave it up to the audience to decode the story's meaning. The town is surprisingly diverse, with a few major roles played by people of color and Sarah Baker as Officer Dudley, a lesbian police officer. On the flip side, Zeke and Earl are about as stereotypical as they can get. They’re wildly stupid, drink PBR, and have Confederate memorabilia plastered all over their living spaces. Yet, the movie never confronts their closed-minded beliefs head-on, using the sign posts of their perspective as set dressing for the absurd crime drama story unfolding around them.
The two almost feel like passengers in the story. Meanwhile, all of the supporting characters, which include Zeke’s wife Lydia (Virginia Newcomb), daughter Cynthia (Poppy Cunningham), Dick’s wife Jane (Jess Weixler), a doctor (Roy Wood Jr.), and elderly sheriff (Janelle Cochrane), have far more agency to move the story forward. Nevertheless, the duo is still lovable in a weird way.
In the hands of a less-adept writer-director combo, it might feel like the story is a sort of empty, Green Book-esque look at how the people we disdain are actually the same as us, but The Death of Dick Long doesn't go there. The protagonists, Zeke and Earl, are never remotely the heroes. Instead, the movie leaves any heroic (or even empathetic) action to the women, children and people of color on the fringes of the story. Furthermore, Scheinert and Chew clearly want to use their setting to open the eyes of viewers to the good people in a community that are dismissed as forgettable.
The Death of Dick Long takes a turn for the weird around the halfway point, and what happens shouldn't be spoiled. The second half of the movie deals with the fallout from that absurd twist, but it never abandons the dark atmosphere, which makes it work all the better.
One of the most under-utilized types of comedy is an absolutely nonsensical story that takes itself as seriously as a drama, and this movie has that in spades. Thankfully, instead of opting for the goofy, surreal tone of Swiss Army Man, Scheinert turns in the opposite direction, taking an equally preposterous concept and transforming it into a dark comedy that’s a metaphor for … something?
On the surface, The Death of Dick Long uses its setting and cast to tell a story about America and subvert the assumptions we make about the places in the country we’ve never been. Underneath that is something much, much weirder. It’s potentially a metaphor for addiction to self-harm, or possibly even an (extremely problematic) allegory for a hidden sexual preference.
However, one of the smartest things The Death of Dick Long does is refuse to ever be direct, leaving the audience to its own interpretations. Surely, many articles will come out dissecting what the movie’s ending really means, but none of them will be conclusive. And that’s part of the film’s beauty: No one knows what it means, but it’s provocative.
As his solo directorial debut, Scheinert’s The Death of Dick Long is an absolute gem. It’s not quite as fun as Swiss Army Man, but it never tries to be. Instead it lands somewhere closer to a twisted version of Fargo. It’s one of the year’s best oddities, a small film about hillbilly country folk that certainly won’t be for everyone. In a year packed front-to-back with failed crowd-pleasers like Dark Phoenix and Men in Black: International that try to appeal to everybody, it’s refreshing to watch a movie that feels like it’s for almost no one.
Opening Friday, The Death of Dick Long stars Michael Abbott Jr., Andre Hyland, Virginia Newcomb, Sarah Baker, Jess Weixler, Poppy Cunningham, Roy Wood Jr. and Janelle Cochrane.