“The Death of Dick Long” is an aggressively quirky title for a movie (and an awkward name to ask an usher about). But it is also an unusually perfect fit for director Daniel Scheinert’s (“Swiss Army Man”) new “idiocracy-tinted crime odyssey.” On the surface, “The Death of Dick Long” is an apt description of the film’s central, inciting incident: After a wild band hangout goes awry one night, Alabama rednecks Zeke (Michael Abbott Jr.) and his bumbling yet adorably charming friend Earl (Andre Hyland), laughably concoct one quarter-baked idea after another to conceal the truth behind the death of their bandmate Dick Long.
The title’s conspicuous phallic joke is also a defining concept for the film. Simply put, “The Death of Dick Long” is a film about the confused death of the proud, dick-measuring masculinity of American tradition. While it’s not the first movie (or bumbling neo-noir for that matter) to mock the obnoxious stupidity of uncouth white men losing their place in society, what sets it apart is the uncommon empathy it displays for these men despite their persistent flaws.
To the duo’s luck, they’re not alone in their aggressive imperfections; the cops who are cold on their trail are possibly more brainless than them (justice is most definitely blind in this movie). The ancient, clueless Sheriff Spenser (Janelle Cochrane) drags herself by cane through a river of booze to the hospital after receiving a call of Dick’s “death by anal hemorrhaging.” Meanwhile, the innocent Officer Dudley (the underrated Sarah Baker) tags along for her first murder investigation, but is also no Poirot herself (“Dick is short for Johnson?” she marvels at one point). The pile of clues, blocking the path in front of them, ultimately proves to be the most trying challenge.
We learn from a young age to connect intelligence with worth, and sins with a need for punishment. And it’s this mentality that allows us to catch a news story detailing Alabama’s old-school failings — or, in this case, Zeke, Earl and company’s failings — and find nothing but contempt. But what sets “The Death of Dick Long” apart is its ability to see the humanity that prospers despite and because of these failings, and acknowledge the importance of its existence. Whether it be toxic masculinity, poor policing or our own twisted ideas, this compassionate attitude allows “The Death of Dick Long” to mine the comedy, grief and empathy that exists in the worst of us as much as it exists in the best of us.
These are fascinating insights, and the film is filled to the brim with quietly inspired acting work (Andre Hyland as the hilarious Earl and Virginia Newcomb as Zeke’s distraught wife Lydia are especially enthralling), so it’s somewhat of a shame that it never adds up to the sum of its parts. Much of the blame lies with Billy Chew’s inconsistent screenplay, which seems regrettably content to rest on the good grace Sundance critics will award it for bringing an intellectually insightful, 2019 spin on “Fargo.” Director Scheinert must also shoulder some blame, however. It seems obvious that the absurdity of its story would have left Scheinert better off leaning into the zany style of his last (and superior) film “Swiss Army Man.” Yet he too often chooses to observe from an arm’s length away, making the film play more like a sociology thesis than the cult classic it could have been. So despite some delirious twists and the sandbox of Southern culture to draw from, the film ultimately struggles to craft a truly absorbing experience.
But, as “The Death of Dick Long” would be quick to point out, the film’s inadequacies don’t disqualify it. They are merely reluctant flaws in a complicated yet genuinely compassionate whole. So while “The Death of Dick Long” may not be the next “Fargo,” it’s undeniably worthy of respect.