Three years ago, Daniel Scheinert and his directing partner Daniel Kwan brought to Sundance Swiss Army Man, one of the strangest things the festival had ever seen. (To jog your memory, that was the melancholy tone poem where suicidal castaway Paul Dano used flatulent carcass Daniel Radcliffe as a fart–Jet Ski.) This year, Scheinert brought his solo directorial effort, the intriguingly titled The Death of Dick Long, to the fest. It’s a bit more modest than that earlier film, but it provides plenty of weirdness in its own right — and as with Swiss Army Man, its weirdness goes from ironic to sincere over the course of the movie.
Dick Long opens with an unhinged, freewheeling night of drug-booze-and-firecracker-fueled hedonism, then cuts to its two nitwit protagonists, Zeke (Michael Abbott Jr.) and Earl (Andre Hyland) frantically driving their mortally wounded bandmate and bud Dick (Scheinert himself) to the local hospital, where they intend to abandon his body outside of the emergency room. Before they drop him off, they literally drop him — accidentally, a couple of times — and then take his wallet, so that he can’t be identified.
As might be expected, Dick dies not long afterward, and the rather alarming nature of his injuries — multiple head contusions, along with severe rectal hemorrhaging — prompts panic across their sleepy Alabama hamlet that a band of psychos might be on the loose. (We do know, by the way, that Dick’s death was accidental; what we do not know for most of the picture is just what exactly happened to him, a revelation Scheinert wisely keeps hidden until we’re good and ready for it.) Meanwhile, Zeke has to deal with the rather incriminating pool of blood in his back seat, while Earl makes plans to skip town, and Dick’s wife (Jess Weixler) begins wondering where her probably two-timing husband is. The local sheriff (Janelle Cochrane) and the not-too-bright Officer Dudley (Sarah Baker) get on the case, and despite having a number of clues — including the wallet that Zeke took from Dick — they don’t seem particularly able to put two and two together.
Scheinert himself comes from small-town Alabama, and there’s a surreal specificity throughout — cutaways to odd bits of local color, as well as occasional in-jokes that even those of us who aren’t in on the joke can identify as in-jokes — that lends the film a sense of authenticity. But he also isn’t afraid to indulge in what we might consider stereotypes. These two ragged, half-baked, Papa Roach–loving buffoons make the worst decisions so consistently that the story borders on Dadaist. Between their rampant idiocies, and the glacial incompetence of the local cops, The Death of Dick Long becomes a symphony of stupidity. I say “symphony” because it’s multivoiced and overpowering. That’s part of the movie’s charm, too: You can feel your brain melting away as you watch it, and that’s not always a bad sensation.
Dick Long does try to get serious in its later scenes, before it pulls off a couple of final, deeply twisted reveals. But the attempts to provide emotional weight feel somewhat unearned and uneven, as Zeke contends with his faltering marriage to Lydia (Virginia Newcomb). One senses an attempt on Scheinert’s part to pull off the kind of transformation that the Coen brothers achieved in films like Raising Arizona and Fargo, where the freewheeling quirkiness eventually builds to something resembling pathos. But many of his characters, as entertaining as they are, don’t quite have the dimensionality to make that work. (Save perhaps for Lydia: Newcomb is phenomenal, juggling disbelief, disgust, horror, and anguish without ever losing sight of both the pathos and silliness of the situation.) That tonal mismatch aside, however, The Death of Dick Long is a delirious and entertaining dumbshit backwoods noir.