'The Death of Dick Long': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
An excellent cast sells a dicey premise.

'Swiss Army Man' co-director Daniel Scheinert goes solo in a 'Bama-set comedy with a shocking secret.

"Hey, y'all motherfuckers wanna git weird?"

That's an invitation to misery in Daniel Scheinert's The Death of Dick Long, an Alabama-set crime pic in which two numbskulls try to escape the consequences of a deeply stupid night. Shifting fluidly between mockery of and sympathy with its redneck protagonists, this solo directing debut for Scheinert won't generate the buzz of the 2016 Sundance entry he co-directed with Daniel Kwan, Swiss Army Man. But it will entertain many, and deserves credit for its generosity to characters who, for all their bad decisions, are more complex than the stereotypes they may appear to be.

It's just another night at band practice when the members of Pink Freud — Michael Abbott Jr.'s Zeke, Andre Hyland's Earl and Scheinert as the doomed title character — decide, post-rawk, to light up some weed and misbehave. A groggy montage shows some of the ensuing all-night action (fireworks and guns play a role), but blacks out before whatever mishap leaves Dick with gruesome injuries. (Including, as Roy Wood Jr.'s ER doctor will soon colorfully exclaim, "rectal hemorrhaging!")

Zeke and Earl, trying to save Dick's life without getting involved with the law, drive him to a hospital parking lot to drop him off. Bizarrely thinking they might spare Dick the law's attention as well, they take his wallet and ID before fleeing. They'll soon wish they'd left that wallet behind, or at least properly disposed of it — but cleaning up their messes turns out not to be their strong suit.

The next morning, Zeke's car is full of blood and he needs to get his daughter to school after his wife Lydia (Virginia Newcomb) goes to work. He decides to pretend the car was stolen, and the ineptness of the lies he soon must tell sets the tone for the next act. Practically every breath Zeke takes creates a problem that will require another imaginative untruth, and poor Zeke, affectionate dad and husband though he is, was not gifted with an agile mind. In addition to the sure-fire situational laughs, Abbott scores with some physical bits of business — nervously scooting a coffee mug back and forth, for instance — that escalate the tension and elicit chuckles simultaneously.

Investigating that car theft is Dudley, an ingenuous sheriff's deputy who has difficulty with common idioms (nicely played by Sarah Baker, who had a memorable one-episode role on Louie). Dudley is reeling from the news about an unidentified dead man at the hospital, but she's not too distracted to notice the barn-sized holes in Zeke's story. The more she tries to help him, the more she (and Lydia) come to suspect he has done something wrong. No spoilers here, but boy, has he ever.

The unveiling of this secret roughly marks the point at which Death stops gently enjoying Zeke's pain and starts praying he'll survive it. Abbott, who got his start as one of the feuding brothers in Jeff Nichols' Shotgun Stories, is ready to play Zeke as more than a one-note joke; even those who are revolted by what he's done may wind up hoping he'll be given another chance by Lydia, one of several women here (like Dick's unwitting widow, played by Jess Weixler) who outclass the menfolk by miles.

If Abbott shifts gears, his co-star steals scenes by staying the course. As Earl, Hyland is a backwoods archetype whose abruptly funny observations cut through wishful thinking. Where Zeke tries to talk his way out of trouble, Earl tries to make himself invisible, hunching and shrugging, avoiding eye contact and dodging questions.

Daniels fans pining for Swiss Army Man's flatulence gags will have to content themselves with some juvenile riffs on the name of the deceased. (If the pic's dumb title didn't scare you off, these are nothing.) But leaving that film's surreal inventions for this sweaty reality proves to be no adjustment at all. The Death of Dick Long is at home in its colorful but not caricaturish setting, and what promises to be hickster noir takes a folksy turn near the end. As shocking as its revelations may be, the pic builds through close calls and nervous laughs to a single modest observation: "People sure are inscrutable on their insides, huh?"

Production company-distributor: A24
Cast: Michael Abbott Jr., Virginia Newcomb, Andre Hyland, Sarah Baker, Jess Weixler, Poppy Cunningham, Roy Wood Jr., Sunita Mani, Janelle Cochrane
Director: Daniel Scheinert
Screenwriter: Billy Chew
Producers: Jonathan Wang, Daniel Scheinert, Melodie Sisk
Director of photography: Ashley Connor
Production designer: Ali Rubinfeld
Costume designer: Rachel Stringfellow
Editor: Paul Rogers
Composers: Andy Hull, Robert McDowell
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (NEXT)

100 minutes