For some, the mark of a prolific filmmaker is their individual style. Whether that style lay in dialogue, mise-en-scene, gratuitous violence, what have you, some directors have a distinct visual nature that it is not only unmistakable, but telling of their artistry as a whole. This much can be said for Daniel Scheinert, whose previous film he co-directed with Daniel Kwan as the collective “Daniels” was the divisive Sundance breakthrough, Swiss Army Man. To say the movie stands on its own is an understatement and this was recognized by critics and audiences alike upon its release. Whether or not they enjoyed it, its blend of dark comedy and tender moments was the talk of the festival circuit, gaining excellent word-of-mouth exposure that reached even the smallest of towns. Though this isn’t the first directorial job on Scheinert’s resume (he has many music videos and short films to his name), Swiss Army Man was his first feature, so it was only natural to anticipate what an odd mind would come up with next. Enter The Death of Dick Long.
Dick Long, its own name and title character being a tongue-in-cheek remark on the ridiculous nature of the film before it has even gotten a chance to be viewed, begins with the titular character (Scheinert) coaxing his friends, Zeke (Michael Abbott Jr.) and Earl (Andre Hyland) into a night of debauchery after their band practice in rural Alabama. Next thing we know, Zeke and Earl are frantically driving Earl, bloodied in the back seat of the car, to the hospital. Not willing to give themselves away for…whatever they did, they leave Earl in the parking lot of the ICU and drive away in hopes that things will return to normal in the morning. Unfortunately, the next day, they are not in the clear. Through a hilarious chain of events, suspicion among them spreads – between everyone from Zeke’s wife, Lydia (Virginia Newcomb), to the local police (Janelle Cochran and Sarah Baker) – in a way that only Southern gossip can.
In his previous feature, Scheinert made an outrageous comedy-turned-dramedy that hit more emotions than anyone expected it to. In The Death of Dick Long, he tones down the chaotic nature a bit, but still provides the audience with an entertaining Coen Brothers-esque crime comedy that captivates from the very beginning. This isn’t to say it’s necessarily more focused than Swiss Army Man, or more mature for that matter, but it is a slightly more serious venture that still keeps that signature Scheinert touch.
The film was shot in and around the greater Birmingham, Alabama – where Scheinert hails from – and it captures the small-town eccentricities with precision. Small details such as Sheriff Spenser (Cochran) coming into the precinct with a cup from local fast-food restaurant Jack’s or a woman mowing her steep yard by means of a string attached to her self-propelled machine (again, emphasis on “eccentricities”). Most of all, it depicts Southerners in a more realistic and less caricatured way, as opposed to other Hollywood films. This is not to say it is necessarily critical of the way they live – though there are certainly jabs about Southern ways of life – but more of a tribute to the area Scheinert comes from that the viewer can tell ultimately comes from love. What is also fascinating about the film is that a majority of the cast and crew were local, truly giving it it an Alabamian feel.
The performances in The Death of Dick Long are that of expert comedians. Michael Abbott Jr.’s Zeke is the main protagonist, whose role involves everything from verbal, physical, and visual comedy. Yet, he makes the audience sympathize with him. He takes more responsibility and feels more guilt from his actions than Andre Hyland’s Earl – an outstanding performance in his own right – and the viewer roots for him despite his increasing web of lies and coverups. Hyland plays a perfect working class slacker who isn’t too bothered by the entire situation at hand, just as he is never too bothered by anything that happens in his life. Janelle Cochrane and Sarah Baker’s turns as Sheriff Spenser and Officer Dudley are not only hilarious, but offer some of the more reasonable and sensible characters in the film. Both actresses deliver a refreshing take on the “law” as they investigate Earl’s death that may technically place them as “antagonists,” but the audience is with them from the start. Overall, the true breakout performance comes from Virginia Newcomb’s doting mother and wife, who is the obvious mature side of the couple. There is a scene where she finally finds out what happened to Earl in which her reaction somehow fits comedy, dread, confusion, and horror all into a row of expressions in an unbroken shot. She is a true standout and it would be surprising if her career doesn’t get kickstarted after this film.
While dealing with some dark subject matter, the tone never shifts from its original comedic feel, which is perfect. The Death of Dick Long is a wild ride from start to finish that will certainly leave the audience wanting more once the credits start to roll.