The Death Of Dick Long transports us to the swampy south for the most bizarre of stories and finds something truly sublime there. It’s almost a magic trick. Take the subject matter of your average Danny McBride comedy, stage it like a straight drama, and ta-da! It’s actually ten times funnier this way. It’s a bold concept executed perfectly.
Michael Abbott Jr. and Andre Hyland play Zeke and Earl, respectively, two good ol’ boy blue-collar types who shotgun beers, vape on outdoor couches, and jam out to Staind and Puddle of Mudd in their terrible three-piece cover band.
One night after band practice, there’s a time jump and we’re not exactly sure what happened, only that the third member of Zeke and Earl’s trio, Dick, is bleeding out in the backseat of Zeke’s car. They drop him off on the steps of the hospital where… well, you can read the title. The rest of the movie consists largely of Zeke and Earl’s increasingly delirious attempts to cover up the crime.
Or at least… what we assume is a crime. What actually happened out there, anyway?
The Death Of Dick Long is one of those movies that the less you know about it going in, the better. It offers us tantalizing clues along the way, cutting between a rogue’s gallery of interconnected, similarly perfectly cast characters — like the puzzled emergency room doctor played by Roy Wood Jr., the hard-drinking local sheriff with her leg in a boot and her booze in a sippy cup (Janelle Cochrane), her fresh-faced rookie deputy (Sarah Baker) whose girlfriend is making her a quiche to celebrate her first murder case, Zeke and Dick’s horrified wives (Virginia Newcomb and Jess Weixler), and Earl’s casually sexy, preternaturally chill neighbor (Sunita Mani from Glow).
The Death Of Dick Long takes the kinds of characters who normally show up in films solely to be mocked, ridiculed, literally referred to as “trash” — guys who listen to Nickelback unironically, say — and breathes humanity into them. That empathy not only doesn’t kill the joke, it deepens it. Suddenly those laughs aren’t a deflection of those weirdos and rubes, but an admission of kinship. People who [SPOILERS REDACTED] are just like us!
Director Daniel Scheinert (half of the writer/director duo behind Swiss Army Man) and writer Billy Chew have taken a high concept and turned it into a perfect tragicomic slice of American life; it feels almost like what you’d get if Alexander Payne had grown up in Alabama.
When Dick Long finally reveals The Big Secret, it’s somehow both high drama and high comedy, a perfectly-written, entirely-true-to-character one-line bombshell delivered by Zeke that had me both howling with laughter and wishing I could give him hug.
The authenticity of the writing and the commitment of the acting is nothing short of a revelation. It’s hard to watch The Death Of Dick Long and not wish all movies were like this. There’s nothing more boring than your usual studio action-comedy, which drops a series of familiar comedians into a set of deadly situations and lets them riff and bullshit their way through it like a series of bits — even worse if they’re all doing their idea of a “wacky” Southern accent. To see Doris Day’s great-grandnephew or whoever yukking it up with his Hollywood pals in fake teeth and a Gomer Pyle accent is to understand rural resentment.
The Death Of Dick Long knows its characters, and so it captures their true eccentricity. It never skates above the material, and it actually works as well as a tense thriller as it does laugh-out-loud comedy and woolly southern gothic.
The big reveal lays bare Dick Long‘s real-life inspiration, such that it’s not hard to imagine how they came up with this stuff. But oddly, that transparency only sharpens its achievement. There’s sophistication to the artistic choices, especially in its gradual, drip-drip-drip reveal of relevant information, but above all it’s an exercise in empathy. Who are these people, really?
Zeke is a mostly responsible, loving husband and father, albeit one with a few weird weaknesses. Earl is a fumbling, inarticulate, vape-sucking knucklehead (at which Andre Hyland delivers an Oscar-worthy performance). They’re characters you’d normally read about in the odd news section of the paper, laugh at, and never think about again, but The Death Of Dick Long forces you to reckon with them as human beings. All the characters in this Juggalo Coen Brothers adventure are like that, utterly unique to themselves and palpably, recognizably human in a way that binds them to each other and to us. I honestly believe that if more stories were told this well we’d have a healthier society.
The Death Of Dick Long is a fantastic movie but also a wonderful lesson in storytelling. Every person believes deep down that they’re the hero of their own story. Treating them that way, as people and not punchlines, paradoxically makes for much better punchlines.
Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.