Fantastic Fest Review: The Death of Dick Long
A mystery in the South shines a weird but moving spotlight
By Richard Whittaker,
5:00PM, Sat. Sep. 21, 2019
Rule one. When your best friend says, "Hey, y'all motherfuckers want to get weird?" Just say no, kids. You don't want to end up like Dick Long.
It's not just that Dick (director Daniel Scheinert pulling curtailed double-duty) is dead, or that his friends Zeke (Michael Abbott Jr.) and Earl (Andre Hyland) just dumped him in front of the local hospital. It's exactly how he died, a mystery that sets the ill-prepared local cops (Janelle Cochrane as the cane-carrying, Malibu-and-pineapple-sipping sheriff and Sarah Baker as her daydreaming sidekick) on a trail of what they think is murder.
Would that it were so easy. The exact nature of the demise of Dick is tearing good family man/overgown teen Zeke up inside (Earl would just rather leave his trailerpark home on what the locals dub Meth Mountain). Of course he knows more than he's letting on, and when all the pieces fall into place, it's clear why.
It's easy for an archetypical art house film audience to laugh at truck-driving, John Deer cap-wearing, Nickleback-loving good old boys, and Scheinert (one-half, with Daniel Kwan, of the Daniels, creators of the equally corpse-centic Swiss Army Man) isn't always afraid of making his characters look a little ridiculous. There were a few shots of small-town life that seem absurd, but also ring true (not least because the Alabama native drew them from observed fact).
Those moments that play a little too broad and "let's laugh at the hicks" don't detract Scheinert's real skill, that he can take something that shocks, something that will create a real, visceral response in the audience, and still find a way to illuminate the characters. He understands the difference between sympathizing with a character and empathizing with them: that's vital, because when the last clue drops, it would be easy for an audience to wash their hands of Zeke and Earl. Instead, they remain the same weak, friendly, believable guys they have always been. It's a perfect example of hating the sin and punishing the sinner without hating them.
Scheinert also really comes into his own as a visualist: or rather, separated from Kwan, it's easier to see what he brings to their complicated, kinetic style. There's a lightness, a lyricism that will make you look at some shots in Swiss Army Man and say, "Oh, that's Scheinert."
Yet it's really as a director of actors that he's a revelation. Abbott never lets the audience walk away because they have already spent so much time - if not liking him, at least understanding him. We're right there with his wife, Lydia (Virginia Newcomb, extraordinary in what could have been a cipher of a role.), when her world starts to fall apart. Dumb and evil may be different, Dick Long says, but it doesn't make the damage hurt any less.
The Death of Dick Long
Mon., Sept. 23, 5pm