Talking about The Death of Dick Long, the new film from Daniel Scheinert, without talking about who Dick Long is, and why he died and most of all how he died, is practically a Herculean feat of spoiler avoidance. Put indelicately via double entendre: The Death of Dick Long will make you laugh yourself hoarse.
That’s it. That’s all you get. To buttress this vague innuendo, let’s answer the who, why and how in equally vague terms: Dick Long (played by Scheinert himself), with whom the audience spends little time before he shuffles off his mortal coil, is one third of a trio comprising Zeke (Michael Abbott Jr.) and Earl (Andre Hyland), his two best hee-haw chums. He dies because when you’re a hee-haw redneck living in a forgotten Alabama backwater, a state easily ignored in accountings of the ol’ U.S. of A. because Alabama is itself primarily a forgotten backwater, you do dumb, reckless things to keep yourself entertained. The how—well, the how is best left until about just over halfway through the film, when all is revealed and the viewer wishes they could unhear the explanation.
For Scheinert, storytelling so profane that it inevitably winds around to profundity comes as naturally as breathing or breaking wind. Recall Scheinert’s last feature effort, Swiss Army Man, or “the one where Harry Potter plays a farting carcass with a perpetual case of morning wood.” Propriety and Scheinert passed one another like two ships in the night likely around the time his parents might’ve imparted the wisdom of age and maturity on him; the most logical leap from a movie where the human spirit is expressed by way of flatulence is to a movie about characters so tragically dumb that the audience pities them for their ineptitude instead of judging them for, and this is putting it lightly, the unspeakable things that they do.
The Death of Dick Long latches on to Zeke and Earl immediately following poor Dick’s bloody passing, as they devote all of their energy toward eliding justice. Maybe that’s too high-falutin’ a synopsis; put bluntly: They’re trying to duck personal embarrassment and to spare their families (Zeke’s, anyhow, as Earl is a loner) the shame of discovering their taboo pastimes. (“Taboo pastimes” do not include performing Nickelback covers in Zeke’s garage with such ineptitude that they make the torment of hearing actual Nickelback songs seem preferable.) For reference, go to the Coen brothers’ filmography and the many unsavory dimwits found within; Zeke and Earl make these characters (Burn After Reading’s Chad Feldheimer or The Big Lebowski’s three German nihilists) look like criminal Einsteins.
Scheinert has his cast play the whole thing straight. There’s an unspoken agreement between each actor: They’re collectively aware of how ridiculous and vulgar screenwriter Billy Chew’s material is, but they’re also committed to tamping down that awareness, as if even a scant acknowledgement of the movie’s secret indecencies would send the house of cards crashing down. When The Death of Dick Long casts those indecencies into harsh light, they land like a sucker punch, except that most of us wouldn’t react to a sucker punch by laughing. Laughter, however, is the viewer’s best recourse, maybe even the only recourse, because polite society leaves its participants ill-prepared to handle an ignominy of the sort Chew has devised.
The Death of Dick Long’s central miracle is that, disgusting as its big reveal is, Scheinert’s direction is fundamentally compassionate. Zeke and Earl are nincompoops of the highest order with the most unsavory hobbies, and yet, their worse merits taken into account, they’re still human. On the verge of being found out, Zeke ducks into his room to take out his frustrations on a lamp, flailing and punching like a fussy child sent to bed without dinner. Everyone, at one point in their lives or another, has felt the same helplessness (though not for the same reason). Scheinert’s camera, manned by Ashley Connor, rests on the floor; the lens’ perspective puts the audience on Zeke’s level as he throws his tantrum. Empathy might be the last thing anyone would expect from a film of The Death of Dick Long’s unseemliness, but then again, if they’ve seen Swiss Army Man, it might be the first.
Director: Daniel Scheinert
Writer: Billy Chew
Starring: Michael Abbott Jr., Virginia Newcomb, Andre Hyland, Sarah Baker, Jess Weixler, Poppy Cunningham, Roy Wood Jr., Sunita Mani, Janelle Cochrane
Release Date: September 27, 2019
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.