Rating: (2.5 stars)
Not quite drama, not quite comedy, and almost certainly not what you’re expecting, “The Death of Dick Long” opens, appropriately enough, with an invitation to “get weird.” That suggestion comes from the title character, played by director Daniel Scheinert — with Dan Kwan, one half of the creative team behind the delightfully bizarro “Swiss Army Man” — so maybe you think you know what you’re getting into.
Trust me: You don’t.
It isn’t long before Dick is dead. This is not a spoiler; please reread the title. After a night of hard partying and some apparent tomfoolery with his bandmates Earl and Zeke (Andre Hyland and Michael Abbott Jr.), the soon-to-be deceased Dick finds himself dumped in front of the emergency room by his pals, who then run away, rightly embarrassed, for reasons that cannot be enumerated in a family newspaper, and which would, in fact, spoil the film’s one massive, monumentally disturbing plot twist.
The revelation, halfway through the story, is something that has caused a few viewers to walk out of screenings. But, while upsetting, the screenplay (by Billy Chew) was inspired by a true story. Unlike “Swiss Army Man,” in which a suicidal man (Paul Dano) befriends, in a manner of speaking, a human corpse (Daniel Radcliffe), “Dick Long” is situated in the real world, albeit a disturbingly dark Alabama.
The home state of Scheinert and Chew, the Southern setting affords the filmmakers an opportunity to make fun of rustic boobs. Earl and Zeke, whose inept efforts to cover up their involvement in Dick’s demise form the first half of the film, are two fine specimens of that genus. Their antics are actually pretty amusing (if also pretty heavy-handed). Zeke, who has a wife and child (Virginia Newcomb and Poppy Cunningham) is a terrible liar, but his buddy Earl is worse. Earl’s first instinct is to skip town, a feat he doesn’t actually manage to carry through on as he drives around in a pickup filled with his belongings, only drawing more attention to himself.
Though some have called “Dick Long” hilarious — and it does have its moments — you may find it more sad than funny, not just because the story is (loosely) true, but because of the surprisingly straight-faced performances it includes, especially in the second half, when it turns quite dark. Newcomb is especially good and poignant, but Abbott also brings a pitiful emotional honesty to a repugnant character.
That’s no mean feat, and yet it only shows up Scheinert’s inability to similarly bundle both tragedy and comedy into a single coherent package. If “Dick Long” is meant to be a yuk-fest, and nothing else, it doesn’t quite deliver on that promise.
It’s really a question of expectations. There are easy laughs here, many of them at the expense of a novice sheriff’s deputy named Dudley (Sarah Baker), who starts out way over her head, and ends up cracking the case. But the film is also surprisingly willing, at times, to confront its more troubling themes, including the why of what happened to Dick, to a degree that is almost offputtingly uncomfortable. That’s not what’s wrong with “The Death of Dick Long,” but what’s right about it. If only there were more of that curiosity, and less of the clownishness.
R. At the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema One Loudon. Contains pervasive crude language, disturbing sexual material and brief drug use. 100 minutes.