Fantastic Fest Review: THE DEATH OF DICK LONG Mistakes Mockery For Empathy

Daniel Scheinerts fails to recapture the idiosyncratic energy of SWISS ARMY MAN with his solo follow-up.

True crime stories told in fictional settings can capture defining or piquant moments in the zeitgeist, illuminate profound universal truths, or at their most modestly ambitious, explore the specific vagaries of human greed, desire, lust, and weakness. But The Death of Dick Long, inspired by a story that to identify would spoil the film’s central surprise, does none of those things. It’s a showcase for dumb crook behavior that mistakes mockery for empathy, and a portrait of familial implosion that confuses objectivity and indecision. Directed by Daniel Scheinert, one half of the team responsible for the risky, idiosyncratic Swiss Army Man, The Death of Dick Long is overlong, unfocused, and gets only one thing right, albeit only seemingly by accident: sometimes there are pieces of information too big and too wild to know what to do with, and no matter what you do, as soon as they’re out, there’s no going back.

The film stars Michael Abbott Jr. as “Zeke” Olsen, an amateur rock band leader who invites his buddies Earl (Andre Hyland) and Dick (Scheinert) over to “get weird” one night, resulting in a catastrophic injury for poor Dick. Unsure what to do, they dump him outside the local emergency room and hope for the best, but Dick dies. The authorities cannot identify his body, and so Zeke and Earl promptly begin trying to cover any tracks that lead back to either of them.

Unaware that the dead body at her hospital belongs to her husband’s friend, Zeke’s wife Lydia (Virginia Newcomb) continues to shuffle their family through the day as if it were like any other. But after Zeke sinks his blood-stained car in a local lake, declares it stolen and passes off Dick’s wallet to a local deputy (Sarah Baker) at their daughter’s behest, the authorities show up to help process his losses and try and make sense of a mounting trail of evidence for crimes that only make sense right next to one another. As Zeke and Earl grow increasingly desperate to cut all ties to their former friend, the cops start putting together the pieces of what they believe is a gruesome murder, leading to a shocking revelation that will change the way Lydia sees her husband, and how this sleepy Southern city processes its first homicide.

In retrospect, the first red flag was Scheinert doing the film by himself; Swiss Army Man was a big, big swing, but the alchemy of his partnership with Daniel Kwan makes its ridiculous elements work, and its earnest moments resonate. The premise of Dick Long is a local news oddity or a late-night talk show host’s opening monologue button, quadrupled down upon by setting it in a rural town occupied by people it makes fun of for loving Nickelback, dragged out to an interminable 100 minutes. For a story that he’s admitted was a personal tribute to his own Southern upbringing, Scheinerts lacks the skill to differentiate between lovingly depicting this on-screen community and simply laughing at its provinciality. But worst of all, he conceives an ensemble of nitwits with no discernible identity, needs, or wants, so when these long-held secrets threaten to become exposed, their efforts to protect themselves play out like an object lesson in almost implausible levels of stupidity.

It’s tough to properly explain how and why the movie handles its plot so badly without revealing the key piece of information that informs Zeke and Earl’s desperation. But suffice it to say that by any measure, what “happened” qualifies as just about the biggest damn matzo ball you can possibly imagine, so when Lydia finds out about it, the movie grinds to an absolute halt - which, to be fair, is exactly what would happen to a relationship like theirs in real life. 

The movie arrives at this moment about an hour in, which is where you might assume that Scheinert begins to contemplate how a loving couple would deal with information that fundamentally transforms their relationship. Instead, Billy Chew’s script simply depicts Zeke stuttering, hemming and hawing in one scene after another as his wife insists that he leave so she can process what she’s just learned. Who is Zeke? What does he want - other than to not be discovered? How do two people repair a marriage that’s been turned utterly upside down? Dick Long either doesn’t know or isn’t interested in really even asking, much less answering these quandaries - and as a result, the death that fuels the whole thing doesn’t mean very much.

It’s hard even to judge the performances because the characters are sketched too thinly to know where the actors portrayed what they were given, or filled in substance that wasn’t on the page. But Newcomb manages to be the film’s MVP purely for capturing the absolute shock and confusion that comes from learning her character’s husband has been hiding an unimaginable secret. Abbott is the anchor to these events - their directionless moral compass - but Hyland at least manages to make his character’s evasiveness, conspicuously dumb as it is, feel organic; either way, too often the actors seem to struggle to behave as inexplicably as their characters require.

Regardless, this film is Scheinert’s showcase, an expenditure of goodwill capital earned by Swiss Army Man that he likely will not - or maybe just should not - receive again until he figures out how better to combine the absurd and the mundane in the same skillful measures he did with his first film. Ultimately, The Death of Dick Long is the type of film a director makes when he or she wants to paint themselves into a corner and convinces themselves they can find a way out, but just didn’t.