Fantastic Fest 2019: Bumbling in the Backwater with THE DEATH OF DICK LONG

“Y’all motherfuckers wanna git weird” with this redneck misadventure

In his directorial outing Swiss Army Man, Daniel Scheinert (together with collaborator Daniel Kwan) was preoccupied with a dead body. It now seems like a recurring motif for him as the same MacGuffin kicks off his solo directorial debut The Death of Dick Long. Zeke Olsen (Michael Abbott Jr.), Earl Wyeth (Andre Hyland), and the titular Dick Long (Scheinert himself) are introduced in a celebratory opening, rehearsing with their band Pink Freud, mostly performing covers of Staind and Nickelback, before moving on to vaping, shotgunning beers, fooling with fireworks, and other tomfoolery. A sharp cut jumps us ahead several hours; Dick is seriously messed up, bleeding out in the back of Zeke’s car. The panicked pair (literally) drop off Dick outside an emergency room where he eventually dies from his injuries. The next day sees the hapless pair try to cover their tracks while concealing the truth behind what happened that fateful night.

The audience is largely left to ponder what happened to Dick as the bumbling tale of two hungover Alabamans dealing with the incident unfolds. They take efforts to clean up their tracks with no real forethought, only adding to the problems they face, both legally and personally. Earl contemplates skipping town as he tries to shift out of lines of questioning (with impressive physical work by Hyland), while Zeke (an empathetic and hopeless Abbott Jr.) starts to lose his grip as his actions, his daughter’s attempts to ‘help’, and the presence of local police Officer Dudley (a darling Sarah Baker) and Sheriff Spenser (Janelle Cochrane) pile on the pressure. There’s also Dick’s inquisitive wife (Jess Weixler), who with him missing, lying as an as yet unidentified body in the hospital, assumes he is having an affair and inserts herself into proceedings, further complicating things for the hapless duo. The worst thing for Zeke is concerns about his own wife (a potent and affecting turn from Virginia Newcomb), with the truth about what befell Dick likely saving him from a murder charge, but causing untold destruction to his family.

It’s a rather perverted and darkly comic reveal that throws the film and its characters into more emotional terrain. A healthy WTF reveal that serves a grander purpose, blowing open a dive into masculinity by puncturing many of our assumptions about these men. It’s one example of how the film deftly takes on preconceptions, befitting its setting in small town America, where Southern culture and religious influences abound. An intimate character study of these two men serves as a sojourn through this community, meeting its characters with their quirks and foibles.

What’s impressive is how subtly and reverentially both the direction from Scheinert and screenplay from Billy Chew approach this warm, but “warts and all” portrayal of the townsfolk without sacrificing any entertainment value. While Swiss Army Man embraced an off-kilter absurdity, The Death of Dick Long is less fantastical, but still retains a similar pathos, an authentic beating heart thanks to the colorful but not cartoonish depiction of this community, and these men bumbling in its backwater. It’s a richly textured misadventure that is surprisingly meditative, darkly comedic, and always heartfelt, even it its most perverted moments.

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