Well that was unexpected.
Written by Billy Chew and directed by Daniel Scheinert (one half of the Swiss Army Man directing team “Daniels”), The Death of Dick Long is a redneck noir mystery about three bandmates in rural Alabama who take the party motto “Do you want to get weird?” to a whole other level after band practice one night. Before the night is through, one of them lands in the hospital and eventually dies (I’ll give you a guess what his name is), and the other two—Zeke (Michael Abbott Jr.) and Earl (Andre Hyland) are covering it up in a fevered hurry that results in many mistakes and evidence that only the most uninterested sheriff might miss. And it just so happens this town has exactly such a sheriff.
What we don’t know is exactly how Dick Long died, and as things slowly unravel and long-held secrets are unceremoniously revealed, the truth is shocking and the journey to find it is both funny and heartbreaking. The film is meant to feel rough around the edges; these are not characters who often get a great deal of screen time in movies, and if they do, they are often caricatures or cartoonish good-for-nothings. So to get an opportunity to dive into their lives to such a degree is actually wonderful on a certain level, if you can handle the bizarre route the story takes. The Death of Dick Long reminded me of early Coen Brothers movies, especially something like Blood Simple or Fargo, where the audience often knows more than any of the characters.
The actual mystery of Dick’s death is solved at about the midway point in the film—in one of the most painful confessional scenes I’ve ever seen—so the remainder of the story is about attempting to keep the truth from the police, which seems increasingly less likely when a new hire in the sheriff’s department (a standout performance by Sarah Baker) is asked by her boss to question a few people without trying to crack the case. Baker plays the part as someone who just wants to make a good first-day impression, but is also smart enough to ask questions the right way and appear to stumble onto the truth.
Also quite impressive is Virginia Newcomb as Zeke’s wife, who tolerates her husband’s man-child ways but can’t stomach things when secrets begin to come out. The Death of Dick Long is a surprisingly honest portrait of the rural South and the mischief people find themselves mixed up with when they get bored. But boy do things get unexpectedly dark, and it may be the nature of those surprises that color your opinion of the film. In a way, those secrets are the only thing that makes sense about how furiously Zeke and Earl work to cover their tracks and lie to anyone getting too close to the truth. Despite there being no real bad guys, the film is wonderfully tense, as it keeps you guessing—both about Dick Long’s demise and which idiot is going to spill the beans first.
The film opens today at the ArcLight Chicago.
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